New problem for House GOP leaders: Rank-and-file may vote against rules

House Republican leaders have a new problem. They can’t count on their members to support them on procedural votes.

Sixteen Republicans defected Wednesday in a vote on the rule governing consideration of a government-funding bill meant to prevent a government shutdown. The defections could have caused the rule to fail since most Democrats voted also voted against it.

Even more striking? Seven of the Republicans who voted against the rule then voted for the funding bill.

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Votes on rules are supposed to be party-line and serve as tests of a caucus’s unity. So it was disconcerting for leaders to see so many Republicans vote against the rule they had crafted.

Worse, from a leadership perspective, is that some Republicans say they plan on doing it again if they feel leaders are limiting them from offering controversial amendments on the floor.

“I think that is something being discussed on a case by case basis,” said Rep. Tim Huelskamp (Kan.), one of the 16 no votes on the rule.

Depending on how many members vote, Republicans can afford to lose between 15 to 17 votes on the rule.

Republicans were saved Wednesday by the fact that 17 Democrats missed the vote, possibly because of the poor weather in Washington that day. If those Democrats had all voted against the rule, it would have been defeated.

House GOP Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) was aware of the situation but confident that his party would pass the rule, according to a leadership aide.

A source close to the GOP's whipping operation characterized it as a surprise and said some members who voted against the rule had initially said they were going to support it.

That source, quoting the popular Netflix series “House of Cards,” said the members broke the “deadliest sin” of “don’t surprise me.”

A GOP leadership aide said leaders always knew what the outcome of the vote was and were unsurprised by the result.

"The vote count on the rule was not at all a surprise to the Whip team and was an accurate reflection of our communication with Members prior to the vote," GOP Whip spokeswoman Erica Elliott told The Hill.

Some of those who voted against the rule said they were going to support it when they were approached by the leadership’s whipping team.

"There (was) a revolution afoot that people who whipped for (the Rule) this morning, changed their vote to 'no,'” the source said.

Several conservatives switched their positions on the rule under pressure from interest groups that on Wednesday morning announced they intended to score votes on the rule.

Freedom Works, for example, was livid that GOP leaders refused to allow a floor vote on an amendment to defund the implementation of President Obama’s healthcare law.

The conservative group sent out an action alert to its members on Wednesday under the heading “Demand Boehner Defund Obamacare.“

Several of the seven lawmakers who supported passage of the bill but opposed the rule vote cited the Obamacare exclusion in explaining their votes.

“Rep. (John) Fleming (R-La.) believes, as he stated in a letter to leadership last week, that the CR [continuing resolution] was a prime opportunity to move conscience legislation that would restore protections stripped away by Obamacare,” Fleming spokesman Doug Sachtleben explained in a statement to The Hill.

“The closed rule, that he opposed, served as a barrier to amending the CR with that important legislation,” Sachtleben said.

Along with Fleming and Huelskamp, and Reps. Steve Pearce (R-N.M.), Mo Brooks (Ala.), Walter Jones (N.C.), Dana Rohrabacher (Calif.) and Ted Yoho (Fla.) voted against the rule but for the funding bill.

Huelskamp, the author of the healthcare amendment, told The Hill that he supported the funding measure after leadership “promised” him that they would allow a vote on his healthcare bill at a later date.

Following the vote, conservative thought-leader Erick Erickson of RedState.org distributed an email citing the creation of a so-called “Conservative Fight Club.” He lauded the lawmakers who opposed leadership.

“RedState and other conservatives and the media should take notice of the Conservative Fight Club shaping up in the House of Representatives,” he wrote. “There are ten members of the Conservative Fight Club. They are the nine members of the House Republican Conference who voted against the rule on the continuing resolution and voted against John Boehner for Speaker plus one guy who voted against today’s rule and was the ring leader the last time the GOP took out a Speaker.”

Huelskamp, who has a tempestuous relationship with GOP leaders after they stripped him of his committee assignment last year, said the vote shows the willingness of Republicans to take on their leaders — though he suggested the GOP class of 1994 was even more willing to do so.

“That is one thing that makes the class of 2010 different than the class of '94, they took down rules and we never did,” he said.

Huelskamp noted that garnering the two and a half dozen votes is “not that much,” especially when at least three GOP lawmakers have their sights set on running for the Senate in Georgia.

The election means those members will be under more pressure to prove their bona fides to conservative groups, he suggested.

This story was updated at 5:26 to correct a headline that included incorrect information. It was last updated at 7:09.