By Molly K. Hooper and Bob Cusack - 06/16/11 09:00 AM EDT
A series of policy battles that have broken out among House Republicans poses a significant challenge to Speaker John Boehner’s (R-Ohio) effort to unify his troops on a bill raising the nation’s debt ceiling.
In recent weeks, intra-party skirmishes have emerged on a range of issues, including patent reform and a proposed tax holiday.
There has also been tension between authorizers and appropriators, evidenced by Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton’s (R-Mich.) crying foul over a provision in a pending agriculture spending bill. Earlier this month, Homeland Security Committee Chairman Pete King (R-N.Y.) voted against the homeland security spending bill, citing cuts to port security and transit grants.
These various disputes come amid continued grumbling about the deal Boehner struck on the fiscal 2011 budget bill and second-guessing in the GOP conference over the Medicare reforms called for in Rep. Paul Ryan’s (R-Wis.) blueprint, which passed the lower chamber in April.
Members of the new House majority are also grappling with the future of the Afghanistan war, an issue Republicans have, by and large, been united on for nearly a decade.
University of Kansas political science professor Burdett Loomis said that these squabbles are a “huge problem” for Boehner.
“It’s a huge problem … [Boehner] has to decide how much capital he wants to invest. … He has to not alienate people, like a committee chairman, who he might really need on a debt-limit vote,” Loomis said.
Boehner communications director Kevin Smith said the House Republican Conference has worked well together over the past six months.
“Working together, our team has made real progress in passing our agenda focused on creating jobs, cutting spending, repealing ObamaCare and expanding American energy production,” Smith said. “We’re going to continue working with our members to build on the progress we’ve made.”
Some claim the unease in the Republican Conference is attributable to being in the majority and having to govern, especially with a Democratic-led Senate and a Democratic president.
Others say the friction is on bills that have nothing to do with the looming debt-limit vote, such as Upton’s exception to an amendment calling for all new Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulations to be based on “hard science.”
Upton opposes it on jurisdictional grounds.
These types of in-the-weeds matters, however, could emerge as Boehner and his deputies are looking for votes on the debt-limit deal. It is common for members to leverage their votes on controversial bills by seeking legislative promises on other issues.
And unlike the government-shutdown showdown — when that debate was basically the only legislative game in town — there is now a slew of authorizing and appropriations bills moving through the House.
The bigger, more immediate headache for Boehner is that Republicans are still trying to get on the same page on big-ticket items that could be included in the debt agreement.
For example, Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) has been pushing his plan to allow companies to bring foreign-based income back into the United States at a reduced tax rate.
The Obama administration has balked at the corporate tax holiday, referred to as repatriation. But it also has not been fully embraced by a major player on tax policy: Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp (R-Mich.)
Camp has said he is for repatriation, despite media reports suggesting he opposes it. Last month, Camp said, “I think it’s also going to be an important part of fundamental tax reform.”
Camp’s tax reform effort is expected to take months, and an overhaul of the tax code will not be included in a bipartisan accord on the debt.
Cantor, representing House Republicans in the talks led by Vice President Biden on the debt ceiling, seems to have a quicker timetable than Camp on repatriation.
On Wednesday, Cantor’s office issued a press release titled, “Repatriation Would Create Jobs.”
Cantor, who used to sit on the Ways and Means panel, did not comment for this article.
The latest dust-up is the fight among Republicans over the patent reform bill that was pulled from consideration in the House Rules Committee on Monday night.
Powerful House Republicans, including Budget Committee Chairman Ryan and Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers (R-Ky.), wrote to Judiciary Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-Texas), objecting to a provision they say would shift billions of discretionary dollars and fee collections to mandatory spending.
Ryan and Rogers didn’t pull any punches, writing that “it would be both irresponsible and unwise to allow the [Patent and Trademark Office] to operate solely under the authority of bureaucrats and White House political appointees.”
Smith countered that allowing the PTO to retain the fees it collects from users “does not increase federal spending or contribute to the federal deficit.”
On Tuesday, the Judiciary Committee chairman issued a release touting that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce endorsed his legislation.
Former Judiciary Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.) sent a letter to his colleagues urging a no vote, saying the Smith bill would “provide large banks with a special new bailout at the expense of inventors and the American taxpayer, and even worse … on a retroactive basis.”
One area where Republicans are coalescing is a balanced-budget amendment. For months, Republicans on Capitol Hill bickered behind the scenes on which version of such an amendment to support. Rep. Bob Goodlatte’s (R-Va.) measure attracted broad backing in the GOP conference, but some conservatives pressed for a competing measure crafted by freshman Rep. Joe Walsh (R-Ill.).
In recent days, a compromise was reached, allowing the Judiciary Committee to approve the measure 20-12 in a voice vote on Wednesday.
All 47 GOP senators have backed a balanced-budget amendment, which Republicans want to be included in any debt-limit agreement.