Devil in the details: Blackburn’s teary defense turned to ‘no’ vote on budget

When Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) urged her GOP colleagues to back a bipartisan deal to avert a government shutdown, she got everyone’s attention.

Blackburn, who is not known for showing emotion, delivered a teary-eyed speech in support of the agreement struck by Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio). Her presentation was moving, a GOP source in the room said, noting it rallied support for the bill and caused Boehner to shed a tear.

Days later, Blackburn was among 59 Republicans who voted “no” on the fiscal 2011 spending bill.

Blackburn had been a loyal soldier throughout the spending negotiations, previously backing two stopgap measures while dozens of other Republicans defected.

Yet Blackburn turned on the legislation as it came under more scrutiny.

According to spokesman Claude Chafin, Blackburn held a town-hall meeting on the Monday evening between the deal being announced and the vote — and her constituents had questions on the exact nature of the $39.9 billion in spending cuts agreed to by negotiators.

Complicating matters for GOP leaders, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) found that the measure cut only $352 million.

Blackburn couldn’t tell her constituents the answers to their questions because she wasn’t sure, either.

“In the final calculation I am confident that I cannot tell Tennesseans exactly how much we have cut, or from where, or for how long. Tennesseans want our spending-driven debt crisis resolved before it overwhelms our country. … In voting ‘no,’ I want to send a very clear message that only strong, solid measures to cut spending and reconcile debt will pass the House with my vote,” Blackburn said.

Boehner lost more than a dozen votes from key rank-and-file House Republicans on the government funding measure when he struggled to defend the substance of the eleventh-hour deal to his conference and conservative media, according to sources familiar with the internal discussions.

That group of lawmakers included House Appropriations agricultural subcommittee Chairman Jack Kingston (R-Ga.) and freshman liaison to the House GOP leadership Rep. Tim Scott (R-S.C.).

Kingston was quick to praise the deal in an April 9 statement, saying that “with this agreement we have prevented a government shutdown and ensured that our troops and their families will see no interruption in their pay. In doing so, we will save $79 billion from the president’s budget and have moved the ball down the road for the battles ahead.”

Kingston subsequently voted “no.” His office did not comment by press time.

“There was a void on the GOP side talking about why this was a good deal. There was a lot of conservative media saying this was a terrible deal,” a Republican aide told The Hill, adding that it was not a good sign when various leadership offices released different arguments and numbers for the measure the night before the vote.

Another aide agreed it became a safer position to vote “no” amid the confusion.

Early last week, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) expressed confidence that Republicans had the votes, even going as far as to suggest they wouldn’t need Democratic votes. They also believed the Republican defections would number fewer than the 54 to have broken with Boehner on a short-term spending measure in March.

While the bill passed, 260-167, it couldn’t have cleared the House without Democratic support, a fact that Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) repeatedly touted last week.

Part of the problem for Boehner and his lieutenants is that conservative talk show hosts derided the deal.

Radio show host and Tea Party favorite Mark Levin called the deal a “sham” on national television.
Rush Limbaugh claimed GOP leaders had caved.

The influential, right-leaning National Review did not give Boehner high marks either, writing, “Even the best deals have some fakery. We were not born yesterday. But this much? In the new Tea Party-infused Congress? ... Just three months into his Speakership, Boehner has put a black mark on his record.”

Boehner spokesman Michael Steel disputed the claim that the Speaker didn’t reach out to conservative media, pointing out that the Ohio lawmaker appeared on the Laura Ingraham, Mike Gallagher and Sean Hannity shows last week.

He also blamed Democrats and the media: “The Democrats who run Washington, addicted to spending, and their allies in the media, sought to create confusion regarding the size of the spending cuts in the agreement. The facts are clear: This was the largest spending cut since the end of World War II, totaling nearly $40 billion this year alone.”