By Russell Berman and Erik Wasson - 12/11/13 07:12 PM EST
The rift between House Republican leaders and outside conservative organizations broke into the open Wednesday as Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) rebuked groups that had preemptively denounced a budget deal.
Distrust between Boehner and conservative groups has been a theme of his Speakership, but it boiled over the day before an expected vote on a two-year budget deal likely to hand the Speaker’s team a victory.
Conservative groups, including Heritage Action and FreedomWorks, had assailed the agreement even before it was struck, prompting Boehner to lash out at them.
“You mean the groups who came out and opposed this before they even saw it?” Boehner asked, interrupting a reporter who started to ask about the criticism from conservative groups.
The Speaker delivered a similar message to Republicans inside the party meeting, when, according to Rep. Steve Womack (R-Ark.), he urged lawmakers not to be pressured by outside activists.
“The Speaker was very clear: There is only person who controls the voting cards of the member of Congress, and that is the member of Congress,” Womack said.
A second person in the room confirmed Womack’s account and said Boehner, departing from his prepared remarks, called out those groups for opposing the deal before it was even announced. The Speaker said the groups were not interested in enacting conservative principles but in raising money, the person said.
House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), who negotiated the deal for Republicans, also pushed back against the outside groups’ criticism after the meeting.
“I think it’s strange they came out in opposition to an agreement even before we reached an agreement,” he told The Hill.
In publicly denouncing the activist groups, Boehner joins senior Senate Republicans who have decried their influence and their motives in mounting primary challenges against incumbents.
The more aggressive posture comes two months after a politically damaging government shutdown that senior Republicans blamed on pressure from Tea Party-aligned members.
Conservative Rep. Raúl Labrador (R-Idaho) pushed back against Boehner’s comments at an event shortly after the GOP meeting.
“If anyone thinks that I am bought and paid for by Heritage Action … they are sadly mistaken,” Labrador said. He said the outside groups were acting on leaks that turned out to be true.
Rep. Steve Scalise (La.), chairman of the Republican Study Committee, declined to take sides in the dispute.
“Everyone acknowledges John Boehner’s job as Speaker is very difficult, but the role of outside groups is still important,” he said in an interview. “Their mission is a lot different than ours. A lot of times, we’re all working in the same direction. Sometimes we’re not, but they’ve got a role to play, and I respect that.”
In a separate development on Wednesday, the conservative Republican Study Committee fired its longtime executive director, Paul Teller, over revelations that he had leaked private member communications to outside groups.
The intraparty feuding served as a backdrop to a fiscal agreement that could mark a ceasefire after three years of budget wars in Washington.
The modest fiscal plan negotiated by Ryan and Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) won generally positive reviews from Republicans in a private meeting Wednesday and appears on the verge of passage — unless Democrats in the House sink it over complaints it does not extend federal unemployment benefits.
With the House scheduled to depart for the year on Friday, GOP leaders hope to send the deal to the Senate less than 48 hours after it was completed.
“We feel very good about where we are with our members,” Ryan told reporters after pitching his plan to lawmakers behind closed doors.
The Ryan-Murray deal would likely remove the threat of a government shutdown through 2015 and replaces a portion of the sequestration cuts that members of both parties have criticized.
The deal would eliminate $63 billion in automatic spending cuts and set a $1.012 trillion budget ceiling for next year.
To make up for the new spending, the deal would raise a Transportation Security Administration fee and increase the contributions federal workers must make to their pensions, among other revenue generators.
The bill includes no new taxes and does not make any changes to entitlement programs. It also does not raise the debt ceiling, which must next be addressed by the middle of 2014.
Ryan sold it as a compromise that lowered the deficit by $23 billion, even if it was a far cry from the conservative blueprint he envisioned in his original Republican budget proposal.
“We’ve got to find a way to make divided government work,” he told reporters.
Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) said there was “very little pushback” inside the conference meeting.
But afterward, several conservatives spoke up in opposition. Labrador called it a “terrible plan” that made false promises about spending cuts.
Rep. Mick Mulvaney (R-S.C.), who is spearheading opposition to the bill, conceded that it would likely get a majority of House Republicans behind it.
“I think it probably will,” he said. “This was not a bill designed to get our support. ... It was designed to get the support of defense hawks and appropriators and Democrats.”
While a few dozen conservatives could vote against the agreement, House Democrats would likely determine whether it passes.
Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) held back her support throughout the day Wednesday, and two senior members, Reps. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) and Sandy Levin (D-Mich.), threatened to oppose the deal because Republicans attached a separate legislative fix for Medicare providers without extending unemployment insurance benefits.
“I think it puts at risk the whole bill, and it surely puts at risk my vote,” said Levin, the top Democrat on the House Ways and Means Committee.
Democrats will not whip their members to support the agreement, but leadership aides late Wednesday stopped short of saying the party would try to block passage without the inclusion of jobless benefits.
President Obama has praised the budget deal, and the White House issued a formal statement of support on Wednesday.
Bernie Becker contributed.
Updated at 8:36 p.m.