House tea partyers face new resistance from GOP pragmatists

House’s most outspoken conservatives chafe at talk of crafting compromise legislation

By Charles Babington
Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) — This should be a golden era for tea party conservatives, whose energies helped Republicans gain a historic House majority and take control of the Senate. But the House’s die-hard conservatives face new frustrations and uncertainty, thanks to a higher number of establishment-friendly Republicans and a leadership push to “show we can govern” instead of throwing partisan brickbats.

Some conservatives are fighting back, demanding that Senate Republicans stand firm against President Barack Obama. But their leverage is limited. And now, however reluctantly, some tea party-affiliated House members are acknowledging a political landscape in which the GOP-run Senate will dilute House legislation, and Obama’s vetoes may be insurmountable.

The divide between Republican pragmatists and ideological purists may be on display when the House takes up a border security bill in the coming weeks. Democrats say it sets unreasonable goals, but some conservative Republicans say it doesn’t go far enough. That’s a familiar dynamic that often makes GOP leaders work hard to pass bills.

For the first six years of Obama’s presidency, Republicans’ internal disputes were largely symbolic. Democrats, who controlled the Senate, kept Republican initiatives from reaching the president’s desk.

Republicans now hold 54 of the Senate’s 100 seats. But Democrats still can block many GOP measures with filibusters, which require 60 votes to overcome.

The House’s most outspoken conservatives chafe at talk of crafting compromise legislation to win at least six Democratic senators’ votes. They prefer principle-over-pragmatism defiance.

At a monthly event called “Conversations with Conservatives,” Rep. Matt Salmon of Arizona praised Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul’s attention-getting 2013 filibuster protesting U.S. drone policies.

“One person over there can bottle up the whole place,” Salmon said, urging similar tactics on immigration bills.

Another conservative, Rep. Raul Labrador of Idaho, said House Republicans shouldn’t trim their ideological ambitions simply because “we have only 54 votes” in the Senate.

“That’s why we always lose,” Labrador said, “because we send the message we’re beat.”

In an interview, Labrador acknowledged that Obama can veto bills even if they squeak through the Senate. But that shouldn’t stop conservatives from pushing their priorities, he said.

He noted that Democratic President Bill Clinton agreed to overhaul welfare in the mid-1990s after vetoing earlier Republican-drafted versions. It may take time, Labrador said, but “it’s our job to convince the American people that our solution is better than the president’s solution.”

In the latest sign of frustration, Labrador, Salmon and seven other House conservatives on Monday announced the launch of the House Freedom Caucus. Their “limited government” group breaks away from the long-established Republican Study Committee, which tea partyers consider too cozy with GOP leaders.

Following their fall election victories, some House Republicans are edging toward the political center. They say the party must prove it can govern.

Several House Republicans, mostly women, forced party leaders last week to back away from an abortion-restrictions bill they considered unduly harsh to rape victims.
Republican Rep. Renee Ellmers of North Carolina said the climate was different in 2013, when she voted for a similar measure and Democrats controlled the Senate.

“Much of the legislation we passed in the past we knew wasn’t going to go anywhere in the Senate,” Ellmers told reporters. Now, she said, “we have to be so careful about the legislation we put forward, because now we have that opportunity for it to pass in the Senate.”

Anti-abortion groups vow to defeat her in the next Republican primary.

Ellmers survived a similar challenge last May. But many House Republicans say they try to stay ideologically pure enough to make a primary challenge almost unthinkable.

That philosophy creates tension with establishment Republicans, especially in presidential elections. To win national elections, these mainstream Republicans say, the party must attract more Hispanics, women and young voters.

Ellmers agrees.

“When we come off as harsh and judgmental,” she said of the abortion bill’s treatment of rape victims, “we stop that conversation.”

Republican Rep. Jeff Fortenberry of Nebraska said Republican lawmakers and their constituents must acknowledge the power of the Senate filibuster and the president’s veto.

“One of the challenges is that expectations are so high for Republican control of Congress,” Fortenberry said. “The harsh reality is that the Senate numbers are still relatively low.”

“We’ll pass things through the House that we think are right and strong,” he said, but sometimes “it’s going to get hung up in the Senate, or even if it passes, the numbers to override vetoes just aren’t there.”

He said Republicans must use strong and forthright messaging to build “cultural momentum” for their goals.

GOP Rep. John Fleming of Louisiana is less patient. He says Republicans must be willing to stare down the president and shake up the government.

Fleming said they should refuse to fund the Department of Homeland Security unless the administration rescinds an executive order protecting millions of immigrants, brought to the country illegally as children, from deportation.

Obama says he will veto the House’s defunding plan, now before the Senate. If no accord is reached, some Republican leaders say their party will be blamed for shuttering a major agency.

Not so, said Fleming. Homeland Security “is going to have plenty of funding,” he said. “All we’re doing is ending funding for an unlawful action” by Obama.



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