In December, Democrats and Republicans in Congress capped off a year of acrimony by agreeing, with uncharacteristic civility, to a modest $85 billion budget deal that eases the automatic sequester cuts and avoids another government shutdown. This news was generally greeted as a sign that the parties may finally be ready to move beyond the hostility and dysfunction that has gripped Washington for the last five years. The speed with which the agreement came together was surprising—and so was the Republicans’ disregard for the Tea Party opposition. But don’t read too much into this unexpected outbreak of goodwill: There’s something else going on that will play a big role in determining whether this fragile truce endures.
What paved the way for the budget deal were outbursts House Speaker John Boehner aimed at conservative groups, including Heritage Action for America and the Club for Growth, that have consistently undermined his leadership and set the Republican agenda. These groups and their allies in Congress were the ones who urged the party-damaging government shutdown in October and are now encouraging Republican leaders to threaten, once again, a national default in the next round of budget talks unless Democrats agree to further cuts.
Boehner is plainly fed up with the Tea Party insurgents and their tactics. “They are not fighting for conservative principles,” he told a meeting of Republicans on Dec. 11, according to the New York Times. “They are not fighting for conservative policy. They are fighting to expand their lists, raise more money, and grow their organizations, and they are using you to do it. It’s ridiculous.” The next day he told reporters, “Frankly, I just think that they’ve lost all credibility.”
Republican members, fearing these outside groups and the voters they claim to represent, have often abandoned their speaker as he tried and failed to outmaneuver the party’s hard-right activists. That led Boehner and House Republicans to go along with the ill-conceived effort to “defund” Obamacare and the shutdown that ensued. So Boehner’s public scolding was a big deal, if only because he was finally striking back. At least in the short term, it had the desired effect: Boehner allowed a vote on the budget deal, and most Republicans joined with Democrats in approving it.
At the same time, the Senate began to function more normally for the first time in years. After Democrats voted to abolish the minority party’s right to filibuster presidential nominees, Republicans joined with Democrats, sometimes in large numbers, to confirm a list of would-be judges and administration officials—the same ones who’d been held in limbo by Republican leaders who said they were unacceptable. Elizabeth Wolford was approved as a federal district court judge on a 70-29 vote; Jeh Johnson became the secretary of Homeland Security, 78-16. Once the institutional pressure to filibuster everything was removed, it turned out that plenty of Republicans were willing to support Obama’s nominees.
It’s tempting to imbue recent events with more significance than they deserve. The rosy view is that Boehner has morphed into Warren Beatty’s truth-telling pol in Bulworth, discovered unexpected reserves of strength, and can now—having beaten back the Tea Party—move on to bigger issues. Boehner would like to overhaul immigration laws and realizes he’ll need to marginalize the right to have any chance. Yet that’s a much riskier proposition than it may appear to be, and the budget deal is only a tentative first step.
To pull it off, he’ll have to employ the same strategy as the hard-line conservatives—but push in the opposite direction. Although it’s often hard to discern, conservatives such as those at Heritage Action have a long-term plan to shift the Republican Party to the right. They believe the party establishment, Boehner included, has accepted the permanence of the welfare state and scared Republican lawmakers out of acting on their conservative beliefs by telling them they’ll lose their seats if they do so. The conservatives argue that if those members can be forced to cast tough votes to cut spending and reform entitlements and then win reelection, their inhibition will vanish and the party will be free to move further rightward.
Boehner and the GOP establishment believe the party has already moved so far right that Republicans will have trouble winning national elections. The speaker was able to exploit conservatives’ overreach in shutting down the government to push through a budget deal that avoids another shutdown. But even the modest spending increase enshrined in that deal has put some incumbent Republicans at risk—not from Democrats but from conservative challengers in GOP primaries. Boehner and his allies will have to force Republicans to cast a different kind of tough vote—the kind that upsets conservatives—and then hope that these members survive their next primary. Only then can he succeed in pushing his party back toward the center.