U.S. House Speaker John Boehner is using an old-fashioned tool to solidify a splintering Republican majority and head off a potential government shutdown. He is raising money.
Boehner, 63, has donated $5.54 million this year to the National Republican Congressional Committee, the arm of the party in charge of winning House races. He’s even raising money for at least one incumbent who hasn’t backed him -- starting the five-week break from Washington with a fundraiser for Pennsylvania Representative Scott Perry, a freshman who voted against Republican leadership five times in seven months.
Forty-one House Republicans, about 18 percent of the caucus, have repeatedly voted against their leadership since 2010. Boehner can’t lose more than 16 of their votes to pass a funding measure or raise the debt limit, or he’ll need help from Democrats. If he can’t command enough Republican votes, he could face a tough speakership re-election in early 2015.
“Boehner has a core of his own party so far to the right that they’re not interested in going along with leadership and the reality is he has limited ability to punish his own members,” said Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21, a Washington-based group that advocates for tighter restrictions on campaign finance laws. “Helping raise money is one way a leader can earn chips.”
While previous House speakers wielded influence by stripping rogue members of committee assignments or rewarding good behavior with hometown spending projects, those actions aren’t as meaningful for Boehner. The anti-tax Tea Party members want less spending and show little interest in leadership. Targeted spending projects, or earmarks, are banned.
Boehner’s fundraising shows he’s a team player, said Cory Fritz, a spokesman.
“The speaker is committed to ensuring House Republicans have the support they need to fight off attacks from the left,” Fritz said in an e-mail.
Boehner plans to attend fundraisers in 15 states during the break, Fritz said. This year, he has attended more than 100 events for incumbents and candidates, raising more than $30 million for his own committees and the National Republican Congressional Committee, according to Fritz.
Even the power of the purse for a prodigious fundraiser like Boehner might be limited. Outside groups including the Washington-based Club for Growth and billionaires such as Sheldon Adelson have helped fund candidates opposed by Republican leadership. Arkansas Representative Tom Cotton, who announced a U.S. Senate campaign this week, won a House primary race last year against an establishment candidate.
“Club members donated $300,000 to Cotton, which helped him get his message out and win easily after being down by about 40 points in our first poll of that race,” said Barney Keller, communications director of the Club for Growth.
Still, even outspoken House lawmakers welcome help from Boehner, who raised $22 million in his own campaign account in 2011 and 2012, more than any U.S. House candidate and every Senate incumbent except Scott Brown of Massachusetts, who lost his re-election bid in November. Boehner’s political action committee, Freedom Project, raised $3.72 million in 2011-2012 and has collected $1.06 million this year.
Also, a joint committee Boehner has with the National Republican Congressional Committee, Boehner for Speaker, raised $22.6 million between 2011 and 2012.
Kentucky Representative Tom Massie, who helped orchestrate an unsuccessful coup against Boehner in January, crossed the border into Ohio three months earlier to share a stage at a fundraiser hosted by the Cincinnati Republican. Nine House Republicans voted against Boehner for speaker after he agreed to a deal to increase taxes for the highest U.S. earners.
Five of the nine Georgia Republicans in the House have consistently cast votes that diverge from their leadership, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. In May, the entire state Republican delegation welcomed Boehner to the Capital City Country Club in Atlanta for a fundraiser with suggested donations of as much as $50,000.
Pennsylvania Representative Keith Rothfus joined Boehner for a July fundraiser in Pittsburgh. Ohio’s Jim Jordan and Tennessee’s Scott DesJarlais have received contributions from Boehner’s leadership political action committee. Boehner donated to South Carolina Representative Mark Sanford during a special election there this year.
All four are members of the group of 41 House Republicans who defied their leadership on at least five of eight significant votes this year. They are almost all men, mostly white and predominantly from Southern states. They tend to be favorites of small-government groups, including the Club for Growth and Heritage Action, the political arm of the Heritage Foundation. The group is headed by former South Carolina Senator Jim DeMint, a Tea Party favorite.
Boehner helped one of those rogue members this week, traveling to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, for a luncheon at Metro Bank Park, home of a minor league affiliate of the Washington Nationals, to raise money for Perry.
Perry, a former state lawmaker who won a seven-way primary last year, crossed leadership to oppose a rewrite of farm programs and twice voted against funding for recovery operations following superstorm Sandy. Perry also supported an amendment, over Boehner’s opposition, to curb the Obama administration’s ability to collect telephone records.
Perry told reporters outside the fundraiser that he asked Boehner to visit, according to the Associated Press. Perry, a colonel in the Pennsylvania Army National Guard, was unavailable for an interview for this story, said Ryan Nawrocki, a spokesman.
Boehner could use support from Perry and others when they return to Washington on Sept. 9, three weeks before government funding runs out at the end of the fiscal year. Boehner told reporters this month that a new budget won’t be finished by then and Congress will need to extend current federal funding for a “short period of time.”
If Congress concurs, that would push the broader fiscal fight into November, when the U.S. is projected to reach its $16.7 trillion debt limit. Obama is insisting Congress raise the debt ceiling with no strings attached, while Republicans want budget cuts included.
Raising the stakes is a band of Republicans led by Utah Senator Mike Lee, who are pushing lawmakers to oppose a budget extension unless it defunds President Barack Obama’s signature health care law.
Tea Party groups are bringing up the issue at Republicans’ town hall meetings during the August recess. At a meeting in North Carolina on Aug. 5 -- the first day of the break -- men and women shouted at Representative Robert Pittenger, a first-year lawmaker, for not supporting Lee’s position. Pittenger had backed 15 bills this year to repeal or defund all or parts of the 2010 health care law.
In a video edited and posted on YouTube by ConstitutionalWar.org, a Tea Party group, a man off-camera asks Pittenger about supporting Lee’s effort.
“Would you like to hear a thoughtful answer?” Pittenger asked.
“I want yes or no,” the man said.
“No,” Pittenger says. His answer is replayed in slow-motion on the video.
Pittenger is shown in the video explaining a hurdle for Lee’s plan: The Democratic majority in the Senate, including Majority Leader Harry Reid, has refused to repeal the health care law. Only 12 of 46 Republican senators support Lee’s plan.
“Do you think Harry Reid is going to pass that in the Senate?” Pittenger asks in the video.
“It doesn’t matter,” a woman interrupted. “We need to show the American people we stand for conservative values.”
Pittenger, 64, said in an interview the exchange shows the difficulty in reaching “achievable goals” in Congress. Pittenger, who voted against the farm bill, said he’d welcome Boehner to his district.
“The threat of a shutdown isn’t going to be successful,” Pittenger said. “We’ll be held liable and be in jeopardy of losing of the House. I don’t want to be part of it.”