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The Republican Right Hasn't Gone Away

Albert R. Hunt is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the executive editor of Bloomberg News, before which he was a reporter, bureau chief and executive Washington editor at the Wall Street Journal.
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In November, the Republican narrative was that the Tea Party movement was in decline, which would make it easier for congressional Republican leaders. The message was repeated last week as the Republican majorities in the House and Senate passed budgets.

The idea that the right has been subdued is a mirage. The high-water mark for party unity may be those budget measures, which bear little resemblance to actual policies.

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Conversations with conservative congressional Republicans suggest they believe the first quarter of this session has been a big disappointment, a failure to begin to keep campaign commitments. Looking ahead, they vow a tougher line, already eyeing a fight over the debt ceiling this autumn, when conservatives argue they'll have more leverage.

On the Senate side, there was relief in establishment circles when Ted Cruz announced he would run for president. They don't much like the Texas senator but figure that if he's out campaigning he's not causing trouble in the Senate. They underestimate Cruz's tenacity; he'll take time away from Iowa Rotary Clubs or New Hampshire diners to toss legislative grenades this year.

The tension in the House may be greater. The budget approved last week, a number of conservatives acknowledge privately, is as an exercise in duplicity.

The measure claims to balance the federal budget in 10 years with no tax hikes. But it assumes $1 trillion in unspecified budget cuts and another $1 trillion from revenue generated by the Affordable Care Act, although the Republicans would eliminate Obamacare.

And when the House and Senate versions are reconciled, after the current recess, lawmakers will have to walk a very delicate line to craft a version that both isn't subject to a 60-vote requirement for passage in the Senate -- which would give Democrats a chance to block it -- and doesn't upset the right wing base in the House. The key House vote last week was a squeaker, with only six votes to spare.

Moreover, any agreement that mandates actions such as repealing Obamacare will be vetoed by the president.

A better guide than the budget actions was the vote last month to keep Homeland Security running: House Speaker John Boehner only prevailed because of Democratic support; 167 of 242 House Republicans deserted him, including 12 of the 19 committee chairmen. 

This, party strategists note, reflected the fear among Republicans of being challenged from the right in a primary, or of a vote becoming a liability if a member wants to run statewide. In fact, only nine incumbent House Republicans in the past three elections have been defeated by a challenger in a primary; that's less than 2 percent of the contests, though the most memorable was the huge upset of Majority Leader Eric Cantor last year by a Tea Party challenger.

The model of cooperating with the Democrats -- the Homeland Security bill or the one last week that fixed dysfunctional Medicare reimbursements to physicians -- isn't to be replicated, some movement conservatives warn.

"We shouldn't rely on Nancy Pelosi to get things done," insists Representative Glenn Grothman, a Republican freshman from Wisconsin. 

The budget battle will seem small compared with those ahead if the Supreme Court guts Obamacare and, especially, when the time comes to extend the debt ceiling.

"On the debt ceiling the question will be whether the administration is willing to give something substantial,"  Representative Matt Salmon of Arizona said. "We will need a big-ticket item dealing with the deficit, like entitlement reform." That will be a nonstarter for the White House.

This worries senior Republicans close to the speaker. One committee chairman, echoing a view held by others, says the right-wing Republicans really want to shut down the government sometime this year, as a matter principle, even if it costs the party politically.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Albert R. Hunt at ahunt1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net