WASHINGTON — If there was any question who's setting the agenda and direction of the Republican Party in the House it was answered Wednesday when, after forcing Speaker John Boehner to agree to once again attempt to defund Obamacare, Rep. Steve Stockman thanked fellow tea partyer Rep. Tom Graves — and not the man ostensibly sitting atop the GOP's top perch.
"[Americans] want to defund ObamaCare and keep the government open. Thank you to Tom Graves and others who worked to make this happen," Stockman said in a press release blasted out to national media. "Republicans should listen to the people who gave them control of the House to stop ObamaCare. If we don't stop ObamaCare, voters will find someone who will."
Stockman's snub of Boehner was remarkable beyond the fact that he ditched the traditional approach of publicly bowing to leadership after winning a concession. As speaker and the most powerful elected Republican in the country, Boehner is supposed to not only set the agenda for the entire House, but he's the party's philosophical course.
But with a gang of 30 to 40 tea party members willing to openly defy him, Boehner finds himself very much on the outside looking in when it comes to the agenda, working overtime to contain the chaos that has become the GOP. And with conservatives forcing Boehner to swallow their demands for another vote on defunding Obamacare as the price for even considering not shutting down the government, it's been on full display this week.
One of those conservatives, Rep. Tim Huelskamp, who has been a thorn in Boehner's side, said that the group of members who opposed Boehner's original plan to avoid a shutdown were becoming increasingly effective.
"This is what we said we were going to do and this will be the first time in two years and nine months that we are going to vote on defunding on a must-pass legislation," he said. "[Leadership] didn't want to vote on this, and that was pretty clear they didn't want to fight on it. We want to see them stand on some principles and give us assurance they'll fight. They couldn't even get the rule approved."
That such a small group of Republicans could have such a dramatic impact on the conference is a lesson Boehner, Majority Leader Eric Cantor, and Whip Kevin McCarthy have had to learn over and over again.
Most recently, the original government funding plan leadership concocted would have defunded Obamacare but eventually allowed the Senate to pass a "clean" continuing resolution into law. They felt they had given Republicans what they wanted, plus they would be able avoid a government shutdown and save leverage for an October debt ceiling fight. A group of members balked, claiming this was nothing more than procedural trickery, leaving Boehner and Cantor deeply frustrated and at a loss for what to do next.
"Do you have an idea?" he asked reporters last week when questioned about a new plan. "They'll just shoot it down anyway."
And that's not a dynamic that's lost on Boehner's opponents. Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi Wednesday afternoon gleefully tweeted, "Today @SpeakerBoehner surrendered the gavel to the Tea Party's desperate attempts to put insurance companies back in charge of health care" to her more than 385,000 followers.
A senior Republican aide said the criticisms of the House leadership were unfair as key tools of persuasion are no longer a part of the whipping process, making "the House more open, more transparent, and more difficult to manage."
"This is just math. We have 233 House Republican members. The majority in the House is currently 217," said the aide, noting that it is usually 218 votes but there are two vacancies. "That means a small group of members can gum up the works on any vote. There are fewer and fewer tools available to leadership. Earmarks are gone — which is a good thing, but it has consequences. Taking away committee assignments hasn't made members any likelier to vote 'yes' — and, frankly, no one has a plausible suggestion for what would do the trick. The world simply changed. It's made the House more open, more transparent, and more difficult to manage."
Conservatives coalesced around the Graves bill, and the speaker was eventually left with no choice but to embrace it. And by Wednesday morning, that's what he was doing.
"We've got a lot of divergent opinions in the caucus, and the key to any leadership job is to listen," he said when asked if had lost control of his conference. "You know, I was here during the Gingrich era. He had a little plaque that was in his office, and it was management motto, "Listen, learn, help and lead." We listened to our colleagues over the course of the last week. We have a plan that they're happy with. We're going forward."
Rep. John Fleming, a Louisiana Republican, said that the conference was initially confused as to why leadership came to them with a plan they likely knew members would oppose.
"We know why it failed, it didn't really have a sincere attempt to pass, so that's the reason why leadership knows the rank and file here and constituents want a real attempt to defund Obamacare, not the sleight of hand, not cosmetic, and they got the message again loud and clear," he said. "They could have and they should have come to us first. I think for most of us, we don't understand why they formulated it the way they did."
Arizona Rep. Paul Gosar suggested that Boehner and Cantor might have an easier time if they had allowed the conference to come up with the plan together in the first place.
"Everything was messier when you have to pull things off the table," he said. You have to have the dialogue. Leadership is coming together and coming up with common denominators, share where you are going with people, engage them, get their support, and away you go."
Rep. Aaron Schock said Wednesday that ultimately, there's little leadership can do if it's members are not inclined to anything other than partisan warfare.
"Leadership is a reflection of their members. If the majority of our members are bomb throwers, our leadership has no other choice but to acquiesce," Schock lamented.