Boehner to members: Leadership is watching your voting patterns

Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) warned his conference on Wednesday that leaders are “watching” how the rank and file vote to determine committee assignments, according to sources in a closed-door meeting.

Boehner addressed the firestorm over the removal of four lawmakers from plum committee assignments at the weekly GOP conference meeting.

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Threatening members with panel assignments is a clear sign that Boehner is getting tougher with his conference and reminding many in Washington of the tactics used by former Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas).

In many ways, the easygoing Boehner is the polar opposite of DeLay, who was known as “The Hammer.” Boehner has tried cajoling his members over the last couple of years to be team players. But by and large, it hasn’t worked, and Boehner is now shifting course. 

Some lawmakers are relieved that leadership is punishing members who had badmouthed the party and defected on high-profile votes. Boehner and Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) had attracted criticism for being too genial. 

A veteran Republican lawmaker, speaking on background last year, told The Hill, “You can’t talk tough to somebody and there be no consequences … people need to be made an example in some way.”

The Mr. Nice Guy management style appears to be over. One lawmaker quipped that Boehner is now “almost DeLay-like.”

Still, Boehner’s explanation to House Republicans on Wednesday sparked some confusion and concern among the ranks. 

Conservative lawmakers, in particular, want answers as to the “crimes committed” by the four members dropped from their committees. They are also not pleased that the members were not called and were alerted to the news by the media.

According to Rep. Tim Huelskamp (R-Kan.), one of the four members who was penalized, Boehner told the conference that the moves had nothing to do with conservative ideology and referenced “voting patterns.”

Other Republicans removed from committee spots were Reps. Justin Amash (Mich.), Walter Jones (N.C.) and David Schweikert (Ariz.).

Huelskamp added that Boehner warned GOP lawmakers that “there may be more folks that will be targeted ... we’re watching all your votes.”

“It was a message to the Republican Conference in general, especially the comment today that there may be more punishment coming if you don’t vote the right way,” Huelskamp said.

While various sources disputed Huelskamp’s interpretation of the Speaker’s comments, the Kansas freshman articulated the concerns felt by members of the conservative Republican Study Committee (RSC).

Later in the day, at their own closed-door caucus meeting, the RSC took the rare action of kicking out staffers to discuss the leaders’ decision to remove rogue lawmakers from committees.

According to sources at the meeting, the conservatives were concerned whether they had garnered the ire of leadership with votes cast contravening the party line. 

Firebrand conservative Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) told The Hill that he wants the list of votes and criteria used to determine which members were removed from committees, and why leadership didn’t call the members. 

“I’m most troubled because independent voices will not be as vocal as they might as well have been … some of them are going to be intimidated,” King said as he slipped into the two-hour meeting. 

It is unclear how the RSC will proceed with securing leadership’s punishment matrix. 

There is considerable risk for Boehner and his lieutenants. Major players on the right, including Sarah Palin, the Club for Growth and Michelle Malkin, have ripped GOP leaders for the purging of the four members.

The conservative blog Red State, run by the influential political commentator Erick Erickson, is calling on Republicans to depose Boehner.

“If conservatives want to keep the House and win the Senate, we need to fire John Boehner as Speaker of the House,” blogger Ned Ryun wrote. “We only need 16 House votes to do it.

“Once we depose Boehner and cause a firestorm, the Republican caucus will get the memo: Pick someone else,” Ryun continued. “These 16 Republicans only need to hold out until the caucus chooses a new leader.”

Meanwhile, House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) told The Hill that the nearly 30-member Steering Committee made the decision to remove certain members but that doesn’t mean they are blacklisted. 

“The Speaker in conference assessed what happened when he was thrown out in 1998, when he was conference chair. He was fired. He had to do good work and earn his way back and he did good work and earned his way back and I think that was a wonderful story to people,” Issa explained. 

He added that “these members have a decision. They’ve been told, in a sense, that they didn’t play well in the sandbox in some way, shape or form by the Steering Committee … every one of them has the ability to earn their way back.” 

The crux of the problem is that Democrats have successfully employed a “divide and conquer” strategy when outspoken GOP House members “gratuitously badmouth the leadership,” a key source told The Hill. “That [GOP members] run to the press to get their own headlines, and that divides us, and that’s really where Boehner’s coming from.”

Another GOP source who was in the room quoted Boehner as saying “the Steering Committee this week decided to remove committee assignments from four members, and replace them with other members. This was not done lightly. This is something the committee took seriously, and hopes never to have to do again.”

According to the source, Boehner continued, “The committee’s decision had nothing to do with ideology. For those suggesting otherwise, I’d respectfully suggest that you look at some of the people the Steering Committee put in charge of committees. I’d also suggest you look at some of the members who were added to the committees by the Steering Committee. If you do that and come away with the conclusion that there was a ‘conservative purge,’ I’d be interested hearing the rationale.”

Huelskamp addressed the conference, receiving, he said, a “warm reception from some and silence from others,” and requested that leaders provide “that list of votes used in the Steering Committee to reward or punish members.”

Huelskamp said his request for committee votes was met by “stony silence” from leadership, and said Boehner’s refusal to release the votes was akin to stabbing him in the back.

“Where I come from in Kansas, if you want to stab a guy, you look him in the eye,” he said. “You don’t go behind a closed door.”

Huelskamp declined to say if he would vote for Boehner to retain his Speakership in January.

“The Fiesta Bowl with K-State is the same day,” he said, indicating that he might abstain.

Right before Christmas last year, Huelskamp attracted headlines by telling CNN that he considered returning to the nation’s capital to block GOP leadership’s effort to pass the payroll tax extension by voice vote. He opted against it because he couldn’t get there in time.

—Jonathan Easley contributed to this report.

— Updated at 8:13 p.m.