Boehner relies on unlikely alliance with appropriators to move Ryan budget plan

Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) has waged battles with his House Republican colleagues throughout this Congress, but appropriators have, by and large, not been among them.

Boehner, who clashed for years with lawmakers who are in charge of passing spending bills, has formed an unlikely alliance with these appropriators. And Boehner needs their support this week.

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In the wake of intra-party battles on extending the payroll tax law and a pending highway measure, the Speaker has a lot riding on the House GOP’s new budget resolution that was crafted by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.). The measure is scheduled to be voted on Thursday, and Boehner and his lieutenants are working to produce a strong unified GOP front.

Earlier this month, Republican appropriators were pushing for spending levels that matched the levels in the bipartisan debt-ceiling measure that was signed into law last summer.

But conservatives balked and Republicans leaders agreed to embrace caps of $1.028 trillion, instead of $1.047 trillion that was included in the Budget Control Act (BCA). Republican appropriators were not pleased.

Yet, when it came time on Wednesday for the three appropriators who sit on the Budget Committee to cast their votes for the policy roadmap, Reps. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), Mike Simpson (R-Wyo.) and Ken Calvert (R-Calif.) did not waiver in their support. Their backing was crucial as the Budget panel cleared the resolution by one vote.

Other Republican legislators on the Appropriations Committee are certainly not pleased with the reduced spending caps, but they are expected to vote with Boehner when the budget measure hits the House floor. 

Boehner’s reliance on loyal appropriators is 180 degrees from the situation when then-Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and then-Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) ran the lower chamber. The duo exerted control over their conference but struggled to keep their appropriators in line.

In one incident nearly six years ago, then-Appropriations Committee Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.) stopped the GOP budget in its legislative tracks over objections regarding provisions related to earmarks.

As minority leader, Boehner and appropriators sparred behind the scenes as the Ohio Republican implemented an earmark ban on the GOP Conference. Boehner has touted that move as one of his proudest accomplishments, noting that it took him years to do it.

Despite that history, the appropriators have been team players during Boehner’s 15-month tenure as Speaker. While GOP appropriators have griped behind closed-doors when some Republicans have rejected their government funding bills, they have largely worked with leadership.

And Boehner has needed every vote he can get on a variety of high-profile bills. While some freshmen have defected on these pieces of legislation, Boehner has, without naming names, repeatedly pointed his finger at “senior members” of the House Republican Conference.

There have been a few GOP appropriators who have defected on controversial spending bills, such as the measure last year that averted a government shutdown and a “minibus” package last fall. Reps. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) and Tom Graves (R-Ga.), who sit on the Appropriations Committee, have regularly bucked their leaders this Congress. Flake, who helped lead the charge on eradicating earmarks, is running for the Senate this year.

Flake last week indicated he is undecided on how he will vote on the budget resolution this week, and Graves’s office has not said which way the Georgian is leaning. 

For decades, the Appropriations Committee was considered the most powerful and coveted assignment for lawmakers in Congress. But without the power of granting earmarks, fewer lawmakers volunteered to serve on the spending panel when Republicans took back the gavel last year.

When Cole, Simpson and Calvert went to bat behind-the-scenes in the weeks leading up to the House GOP’s release of the budget, Republican leaders initially worried the effort would throw a wrench in their plans.

The three appropriators pressed for the baseline number to be the $1.048 trillion in the BCA, though made the case that Republicans would have to step up and vote for spending bills later this spring and summer if conservatives insisted on a lower baseline. They pointed out Democrats certainly wouldn’t support funding measures at a lower level.

Last year, appropriators were livid when members of their party who voted for the BCA, opposed subsequent government funding bills that adhered to the BCA.

Cole said that he’s confident that GOP leaders will make a more vigorous case to rank-and-file lawmakers in 2012.

“I think this was a very educative process for a lot of people — a lot of folks. Freshmen haven’t linked those two together. I know our leadership will do everything they can to make sure the appropriations bills are pushed — we had to make the gesture that we’re willing to work with people and that we’ll see where we end up — that’s up to individual members. I know our leadership will do everything it can to get to 218 we need to pass [appropriations] bills,” Cole said.

Unlike a number of hard-line conservatives in the House GOP conference, appropriators say they were willing to take one for the team, even though they did not get everything they wanted in the budget.

Cole told The Hill that at the end of the day, “we’re all part of a team here, we want to help the chairman out.”

Two Republicans on the Budget Committee voted against Ryan’s measure last Wednesday: freshmen Reps. Justin Amash (R-Mich.) and Tim Huelskamp (R-Kan.). Neither are appropriators. 

Last year, House Republicans touted the budget that easily passed the House, 235-193. Only four Republicans defected: Reps. Ron Paul (Texas); Denny Rehberg (Mont.); Walter Jones (N.C.); and David McKinley (W.Va.).

Rehberg, who is running for the Senate, is an Appropriations subcommittee chairman.

Republicans believe they have the votes to pass the budget, but anticipate there will be more defections than 2011.

“I think it will be more challenging than it was last year, and we’ll have a few more people that will vote against it because it’s not conservative enough,” Cole said.

Andres Feijoo and Erik Wasson contributed to this report.