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Boiling over

House conservatives go after Speaker John Boehner as fiscal cliff talks continue behind closed doors

House Speaker John Boehner Associated Press/Photo by J. Scott Applewhite

Boiling over

WASHINGTON—As House Speaker John Boehner warned Republicans Wednesday that an extended congressional session might run through Christmas, some of the party’s conservative rank-and-file members unleashed frustrations about Speaker Boehner’s leadership during the ongoing fiscal cliff talks.

Rep. Tim Huelskamp, R-Kan., said he is “very concerned” about the closed door negotiations taking place between Boehner and President Barack Obama over the series of tax increases and spending cuts slated to take effect at the end of the year. Lawmakers like Rep. Huelskamp feel shut out and unable to openly debate on the House or Senate floors as they wait for specifics of any proposal to emerge.

But Huelskamp’s criticisms were mild compared to the bluntness displayed Wednesday by Michigan’s Republican Rep. Justin Amash.

“If Speaker Boehner wants to come back to my district, he’s not going to be met with very much welcome,” Rep. Amash said.

Conservatives in the House are not showing much holiday cheer during the Christmas season after Boehner booted four members, including Huelskamp and Amash, from key committee posts.

Huelskamp and Amash have lost seats on the House Budget Committee while Reps. David Schweikert of Arizona and Walter Jones of North Carolina have been booted from the House Financial Services Committee. The changes will take effect when the new Congress convenes next year.

While the Republican leadership has kept largely mum about the reasons behind the committee changes, critics of the moves say they were motivated because the fiscal conservatives did not completely go along with all the Republican establishment’s initiatives.

Outside conservative organizations have condemned Boehner for the committee ousters. But what is more surprising is the fact that conservative lawmakers—both those sent packing from committees and their fiscally conservative colleagues—are not retreating in the aftermath of what some conservatives are calling “the punishments.”

As a result, a fire of division has started to burn within the Republican Party just as a unified front is necessary during negotiations with the Democrats over the fast-approaching fiscal cliff.

The block of fiscally conservative House lawmakers, who have spent the last two years pushing for a balanced budget, say the committee reassignments may be a sign that any fiscal cliff deal will include sizeable tax increases and minimum spending cuts.

“When you kick two guys off the budget committee because they want to balance the budget in a shorter time frame than 26 years, that is not healthy,” said Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio. “When you kick a guy off the financial committee who has a background in financial services and was a county treasurer, that is not healthy. This is not a good thing. It should not have happened.”

Amash, elected in 2010 and removed from the budget committee, promised he would be more outspoken, not less, after his committee ouster.

“I spent a lot of time saying … ‘Speaker Boehner is doing the best job he can do,’” Amash said. “I did that for a year, a year and a half. We are not doing the best job we can do. I’ve been here for almost two years. It is not acceptable to anyone. We can do a lot better. But we need people who can be bold. We need leaders on both sides. And we don’t have that right now.”

Rep. Jeff Landry is a Republican who can be outspoken with comfort because he lost his November reelection bid in Louisiana’s 3rd District after redistricting forced him to face another Republican.

He said establishment Republicans embraced the conservative Tea Party movement in 2010 in an effort to get back the House majority. Once the Republicans regained control of the House, Rep. Landry argued, they tried to corral and quiet the new platoon of conservative Republicans.

“They thought they could get rid of the conservatives, and they could take the White House, and they could take the Senate,” he said. “My message to them is did anyone look at the results on November the sixth? We lost eight seats in the House of Representatives. We lost seats in the Senate. And guess what? We did not win the White House. So their strategy is not doing too well.”

Huelskamp, who was removed from the House Budget and Agriculture Committee on Dec. 3 with no explanation or warning, said Boehner’s move against conservatives will make it hard for voters to believe the closed door negotiations will yield the best possible fiscal cliff deal.

“I think it makes it very difficult for at least me to have trust in leadership that doesn’t have the courage to actually come to me and say, ‘You know Congressman Huelskamp, here’s why [you were removed],’” said Huelskamp who added that in a recent poll conducted by his office 88 percent of respondents in his Kansas district did not support Boehner for speaker. “I think it breeds distrust.”

Huelskamp said Republican leaders removed him from the committee assignments to send a message to the rest of the Republicans that they better get in line. Huelskamp pledged to his constituents that he would not raise taxes, and he confirmed on Wednesday that he would not back off that pledge.

“I would say there’s a lot of folks up here that it’s not necessarily about principles,” he said. “It is about politics. It is about personalities, and it’s oftentimes about partisanship.”

Still, Huelskamp would not answer questions about supporting any challenge to Boehner’s speakership next year. Boehner must be reelected speaker by the new Congress. In fact, none of the vocal conservatives were willing to call outright for removing the speaker’s gavel from Boehner.

“I don’t have faith in too many people in Washington, D.C., because there is not much courage in Washington, D.C.,” said Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho. “But I think that Speaker Boehner is doing the best he can with the hand that he has been dealt.”

Despite all the verbal bombs being lobbed, any conservative faction in the House likely will not be able to amass the votes necessary to knock Boehner out of the speaker’s chair. But at the end of their first two-year terms on Capitol Hill some of the initially heralded 87 GOP freshmen class are beginning to publicly reveal their long simmering frustrations over business as usual in Washington. The growing tensions within the Republican Party will be a key story line heading into the next congressional session.

Edward Lee Pitts

Lee is the executive director of the World Journalism Institute and former Washington, D.C. bureau chief for WORLD Magazine. He is a graduate of Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism and teaches journalism at Dordt University in Sioux Center, Iowa.

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