WASHINGTON – On most weekday mornings, House Republicans huddle in a windowless room in the Capitol basement. Over pastries and coffee, they confer with the leadership and discuss strategy. Sometimes they complain; sometimes they cheer. This past week, it’s been more of the former. As the tensions grow, the GOP’s internal debate can seem like a circus — the tea party vs. establishment. But behind the scenes, the arguments are more nuanced than some Democrats presume:
1. House Republicans want to default.
When they’re on the cable news shows, House Republicans can sound aggressive and unyielding about the upcoming debt limit; they won’t extend the federal government’s borrowing limit, they often say, unless Democrats make major concessions.
This public, tough-talking stance, though, is only part of the story. House Speaker John Boehner privately reassured colleagues Thursday that he won’t let the nation default, and within the inner sanctum of the House GOP, he has never promoted missing the deadline.
Instead, Boehner is struggling to balance his right flank’s appetite for brinkmanship with his desire to cut a deal that’s palatable to conservatives. To do that, he frequently shies away from publicly conceding any ground. But he and the Republican leadership aren’t eager to be blamed for economic chaos and risk their party’s House majority in next year’s midterms.
So don’t read too much into the fight-till-the-death posturing of the House’s debt-limit warriors. They have influence but not total say. Look for smaller clues — Boehner’s closed-door meetings, the chatter about a larger fiscal package — as evidence of how the impasse will probably end: with an eleventh-hour, smaller compromise that Boehner has been slowly but surely shepherding.
2. Ted Cruz is directing the House GOP’s strategy.
The Republican senator from Texas gained headlines recently for a story that was first reported by National Review: He was secretly meeting with House conservatives and urging them to oppose the leadership. Soon after, media outlets started to proclaim Cruz, a freshman and conservative star, as the unofficial speaker of the House — and the one player whom Boehner had to appease or else risk losing conservative favor.
Of course, “Cruz as speaker” was a dramatic spin by reporters. But for a moment, it had a ring of truth: Cruz’s House allies challenged Boehner in those morning strategy meetings, and the speaker subsequently followed Cruz’s direction, from championing the “defund Obamacare” effort to holding firm in his negotiations with Democrats. Cruz, for his part, seemed to relish the attention. As the buzz grew, he happily acknowledged in interviews that he was, indeed, pressuring the House leadership.
But Cruz’s moment as Republican conductor was fleeting, and his power over the House’s rabble-rousers has dimmed. He still keeps in touch with them, but he has retreated to his comfort zone: the outside game. Boehner’s allies worry that Cruz might suddenly decide to reenter the House fray, but for now, he’s working more with conservative groups than with House members.
3. Boehner is powerless.
The House speaker has endured an arduous post-election period, going back to late December, when his strategy for solving the “fiscal cliff,” the infamous “Plan B,” failed to gain traction in the House Republican conference. In a memorable moment, Boehner, nearly in tears, conceded defeat and pulled Plan B from the floor. A few weeks later, there was an embarrassing coup attempt in which about a dozen Republicans broke ranks. Ever since, Boehner’s grip on his conference has been threatened by 30 to 40 House conservatives who don’t trust his instincts and ignore his direction.
But Boehner isn’t powerless. That group of 30 to 40 conservatives, while a dominant bloc, represents only about 10 percent of the House. Boehner goes along with them on many issues, but not because he doesn’t have other options; it’s because he wants to keep the conference united. If he wanted to break with them in the current fiscal drama, he could, and that power shouldn’t be dismissed. Should he decide to bring a compromise to the House floor, there’s nothing, other than political considerations, that would stop him.
4. Paul Ryan is AWOL.
Ryan, a Wisconsin congressman and former GOP vice-presidential nominee, has had a lower profile since last year’s election. He remains Budget Committee chairman, but he’s not out there as a leading spokesman for House Republicans. This is by design. Ryan knows he’s an outsize presence in Republican politics, and, according to his confidants, he doesn’t like to use his political capital, in terms of TV appearances and interviews, unless necessary, such as when he backed a flagging Boehner during the fiscal cliff debate.
On the debt limit and the government shutdown, Ryan has kept his head down. When reporters press him in the Capitol’s hallways, his usual refrain is “no comment.” But he’s not AWOL. In fact, Boehner’s aides tell me he’s one of the speaker’s most important advisers. And when it comes to crafting the emerging Republican offer to end the shutdown and extend the debt limit in one fell swoop, they’re turning to Ryan to nail down the specifics. He has been sketching out a potential budget deal, and Boehner tapped him as a conferee on Republicans’ proposed congressional panel to put together a fiscal agreement.
Perhaps most important, Ryan is Boehner’s conservative whisperer, a veteran of the movement who can filter the leadership’s strategy to the right.
5. There are few centrist House Republicans.
They may sometimes be silent and fearful of stirring conservative ire, but more than 100 members of the House GOP are much more centrist than you’d imagine. These are the members from purple and light-red districts, who rarely go on television and, unlike their more unruly colleagues, stick with the leadership. They are critical to sustaining Boehner’s power, and, should the GOP find a way to extend the debt limit and once again fund the government, they’ll deserve credit.
Two dozen of these Republicans — including Reps. Charlie Dent (Pennsylvania) and Peter King (New York) — have pressed Boehner to quickly end the shutdown and assure them that the government wouldn’t default. They’re rattled by the House GOP’s rightward drift, and they’re tired of Cruz and his House compatriots embracing a standoff that has no end in sight.
Dent is working with House Democrats to pass legislation that would reopen the government and repeal the medical-device tax, a plan with bipartisan support. King, perhaps the most prominent in the centrist caucus, tells me he expects most Republicans to eventually come his way.
Ultimately, a large group of rank-and-file Republicans wants the mess to end. They may not have the moxie to outmaneuver House conservatives, but they certainly have the numbers.
Robert Costa is Washington editor of National Review and a political analyst for CNBC.