Strategists: 2012 White House hopefuls will bash any bipartisan budget accord

If lawmakers strike a bipartisan deal on the budget, Republicans who are eyeing a White House bid will likely condemn it, according to GOP strategists. 

While staunch conservatives in the House want any agreement to include a defunding of the healthcare law, that’s not a deal the White House will sign off on. Given that the crop of probable presidential hopefuls has universally derided the law, there is little chance that any of them will fully support such a budget accord.

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Some Republicans say the candidates would all be best served by hitting the campaign trail and the cable circuit to gripe, even if House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and congressional Republicans are caught in the crosshairs.

“They’ll all have to attack it,” said GOP strategist John Feehery, who served as communications director for former House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.). “No matter what John Boehner does, he’ll be criticized by these folks, because they’ve got to run against the political establishment, no matter what.

“It all makes it very complicated,” said Feehery, also a contributor to The Hill's Pundits Blog.

It’s a good bet that the reaction from the chorus of GOP presidential contenders will be starkly different from the varied responses offered to the tax-cut deal congressional Republican leaders ironed out with the White House late last year.

A deal on the extension of the George W. Bush-era tax rates largely divided the rumored GOP contenders, with former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and former Sen. Rick Santorum (Pa.) coming out against it. Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.) offered varying levels of support for the deal and were criticized by some conservatives for appearing too accepting of the compromise.

The tax debate could be a lesson learned when the field of hopefuls reacts to a potential budget deal this time, especially given the newest GOP draw on the 2012 campaign trail: Rep. Michele Bachmann (Minn.).

With Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) and Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.) now officially out of the 2012 sweepstakes, Bachmann is the one potential GOP White House contender who will cast a vote on any agreement reached, and she’s already thrown down the gauntlet on healthcare funding.

“We need to get back the $105 billion that was pre-funded for ObamaCare and then just defund any current authorization that there is of any kind,” said Bachmann, who has traveled to both Iowa and New Hampshire this month as she weighs a 2012 run. “I think the amount of money that we settle on isn’t as crucial as actually getting that funding back.”

Bachmann says she won’t vote for any spending deal that includes money to implement the healthcare law and that, should one pass, she’d be a major voice railing against it on the campaign trail.

“They’re watching what’s happening up here,” Bachmann said of voters. “This impacts the people of the United States, and this isn’t a game. This isn’t about gaining political advantage or gaining footing or anything like that. It’s about killing ObamaCare.”

This past weekend, Bachmann was the star of the latest candidate “cattle call” in Iowa, hosted by Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), another Republican who has frustrated his party’s leadership with his all-or-nothing posture on defunding the healthcare law. King will also be a major get in terms of endorsements ahead of next year’s Iowa caucuses, and he’s already signaled that he will play a major role in 2012.

“You want to be the [Republican] front-runner, you better be the most anti-Obama, anti-Pelosi person out there,” said GOP pollster Jim McLaughlin. “So even if they all have to condemn [a deal], it’s probably a good place for these candidates to be, because even the Republican base doesn’t love the leadership in Congress.”

Republican pollster Whit Ayres agrees, saying he doesn’t see any conflict. 

“This is an easy one for the White House contenders,” said Ayres. “The message from them is, ‘This is why we need a Republican president. That way we don’t have to compromise.’ ”

Political observers expect Romney, who has been criticized for his role in enacting healthcare reform in Massachusetts when he was governor, to be a leading critic of any bill that funds the implementation of the health law.

Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), a campaign strategist before his election to the House and a former chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, warned that blasting a budget agreement would be bad politics.

“I don’t think advancing themselves at the expense of the Republican Conference is a very good long-term strategy,” Cole said of the 2012 contenders. “If they do, I think they’ll all be making an enormous mistake.”

Cole said he’s confident that Boehner will get the best deal he can, adding that he’s offered the same advice to dissenting members of the GOP conference in the House, saying, “I think a few of our members should worry less about leadership and more about followship.”

As for what effect a government shutdown might have on the race for the presidency, there’s still the fear among many Republicans that, like the last shutdowns in the 1990s, a Democratic president could emerge stronger and strengthen his hand heading into an election year. 

But McLaughlin says there’s one major difference this time around: The White House and national Democrats likely won't be able to use Boehner to bash the eventual GOP presidential nominee.

“The environment is completely different right now,” said McLaughlin, who polled for then-Sen. Bob Dole (R-Kan.) in the 1996 presidential race. “[Democrats] had Newt Gingrich to use back then, who had better than 60 percent negatives at the time. They don’t have a bogeyman this time.”

More than just the money to fund the healthcare law will rankle conservatives in any potential budget agreement. Democrats and Republicans are battling over a handful of controversial policy riders that many House Republicans want as part of any final budget deal. They include banning taxpayer funding of Planned Parenthood and preventing the Environmental Protection Agency from implementing new emissions regulations.

“Republicans aren’t going to get every single thing they want out of the White House,” said Ayres. “So inevitably, there will be something in [an agreement] that won’t make conservatives happy. But that works to the favor of those who might be running for president.”