The House was set to vote this week on a bill modifying the president's health care law. The Republican bill was supported by the leadership, but ran into trouble and was pulled from the floor before the scheduled vote.
It's an example of the kind of obstacles Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, faces in getting legislation through the House. In many recent cases, his problem hasn't been the Democrats as much as members of his own party, backed by proudly conservative outside groups.
The health care bill was supposed to show the softer side of House Republicans. It would have taken money from one part of "Obamacare" and used it to boost coverage for people with pre-existing conditions. And, as an added bonus, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., said it would make Democrats look bad for voting against it.
"That's not something I think they can go home and be proud of," Cantor said. "We're trying to find solutions here."
But there was a problem: Conservatives hated the bill.
"We're shifting money from one part of Obamacare we don't support to another part of Obamacare we don't support," said Rep. Justin Amash from Michigan, who was elected in the Tea Party wave of 2010, at an event called Conversations with Conservatives. "That's a nonstarter for me."
It wasn't just a few contrarian Republicans. The outside groups that helped many freshman and sophomores get elected said they would watch the vote. The Club for Growth issued a "key vote alert" urging a "no" vote, and Heritage Action, the activist offshoot of the Heritage Foundation, made it clear it thought the bill was both bad policy and bad politics.
The leadership came up against a wall of conservatism — and the wall won.
A spokesman for Cantor says he hasn't given up. But this is part of a pattern. On a number of bills in recent months, if these groups urge a no vote, the measure is either pulled from the agenda or it passes only because of Democratic support.
"A lot of these seem to be self-inflicted wounds," says Dan Holler of Heritage Action. "There is this inherent tension between the Republican Party and the conservative principled base. And a lot of that time that tension plays out on the House floor in these sort of bills."
Often, that means these conservative groups are working at cross-purposes with Boehner and others in leadership. Holler says it doesn't have to be that way — they could be allies, if only the speaker would push conservative policy.
"The proper way to look at that question [is] it's not necessarily what outside groups are doing that's counterproductive to the leadership agenda — it's why the leadership agenda is divorced from what their party wants," Holler says.
Traditionally, if the leadership decides something is a priority and schedules it for a vote, it will get a vote, and it will pass with a majority of the majority. But, with a "key vote alert" calling for a "no" vote from the Club for Growth or Heritage Action, leadership-backed bills are facing challenges.
The speaker's office dismisses the group's influence, but the Club for Growth's Andy Roth says the House is now loaded with members who agree completely with the club.
"In previous years, there were a lot of moderate and even liberal Republicans in the House, but thankfully their numbers have dwindled and they've been replaced by so-called Tea Party conservatives," Roth says. "The conservativeness — if that's a word — of the Republican conference has gotten demonstrably higher."
The Club for Growth would like to boost those numbers even more and has a project called Primary My Congressman, aimed at replacing moderates with more conservative members, like Rep. Jeff Duncan of South Carolina.
"Philosophically, we're all aligned — that's why they endorsed me, that's why they helped me get elected," Duncan says. "But right down to the very heart of it, the core, is that I'm conservative, they're a conservative group — we're probably going to land on the same page anyway."
Sometimes, that's a very different page from the speaker of the House and his leadership team.
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