WASHINGTON – Republican House Speaker John Boehner started Tuesday with a last-ditch attempt to exert control over his restive caucus, proposing a new plan to open the government and raise the U.S. debt ceiling in an effort to give Republicans a bit of leverage.
But as evening fell over the Capitol, it was increasingly clear who had control over the House GOP: no one.
Boehner struggled to accommodate his most vocal and hard-line members, adjusting his plan to address their concerns only hours after laying it out in a morning meeting with his caucus.
But even after the rewrite, even after cajoling lawmakers in small groups — attempting to convince them that passing a Republican plan in the House would give the party more power to win concessions from Democrats than if they allowed the Senate to take the lead — there were still not enough votes to pass it.
“I have one vote, and I’m a no,” Rep. Thomas Massie, a Republican freshman defying the will of party leaders, said as he left a late-afternoon meeting with House Majority Leader Eric Cantor and Republican Whip Kevin McCarthy.
The death knell for the legislation came as the conservative group Heritage Action announced that it opposed the plan and urged Republicans to vote against it. The group has been leading the effort to pressure Republicans to tie government funding to defunding the federal health care law.
The day repeated a cycle that has defined the GOP since it retook the House in 2010 and has played out over and over in the most recent fiscal fight.
In August, Boehner counseled his members in a conference call against risking a government shutdown by linking agency funding to the health care bill. But spurred by Heritage Action, the Club for Growth and other outside groups, along with a bloc of a few dozen House conservatives, Boehner moved a bill in mid-September that would fund the government only if Democrats agreed to defund the Affordable Care Act.
Again and again, as it became clear that the Senate would reject every attempt to use the crisis to dismantle the health care law, Boehner stuck by conservatives.
On Tuesday, he altered key parts of his plan in a bid to win their support. Instead of funding the government until Jan. 15, the revised plan would do so only through Dec. 15. Boehner also dropped a proposal to delay a tax on medical devices, which had been a priority among some Republicans, in response to concerns from others that eliminating the tax would make the health care law more palatable.
Instead of getting rid of the employer health care contribution only for members of Congress and White House staffers, the revised version would do the same for congressional staffers, after some conservatives insisted that would be fairer.
Part of the challenge for Boehner is his slim margin of error. While House Democrats are unified, he can’t afford to lose more than 15 votes from his caucus’ 232 members.
That hands extraordinary power to small blocs of Republican lawmakers who are willing to stand firm in opposition to proposals from the party’s leaders.
And despite what most see as a debacle for the GOP, a core group of conservatives insisted Tuesday that they are winning their battle to force concessions from Democrats on fiscal issues.
President Barack Obama, they say, has been forced into a negotiation, even though he has said he will cede nothing in exchange for opening the government and raising the debt ceiling. The nation’s attention has been focused on problems with the health care law. And making Boehner move to the right is itself a victory.
“People said, ‘Don’t dare shut the government down because the American people will hate you,’ ” said Rep. John Fleming, outlining Republican victories in the fight. “And we’ve got resolve.”
Fleming backed Boehner’s approach Tuesday morning, saying: “We’ve won in a lot of ways. There are a lot of barriers we’ve broken down here.”
Republican Rep. Andy Harris said conservatives have succeeded in exposing problems with the health care law.
“Oh my gosh, we’ve lit up ‘Obamacare’ for the whole nation,” he said, describing what his wing of the party had won in the shutdown. “Look, the rollout was atrocious, this is a fundamentally flawed plan, and we have made it crystal clear to the American public that we stand with them on Obamacare.”
That attitude illustrated a split within the GOP that has only grown more profound in the days since the shutdown started. Hard-liners are sure that their position is gaining strength, while moderates and a number of Republican leaders counter that the party has experienced an epic collapse.