House Republicans rebound after disastrous start, find new leverage

House Republicans have picked up the pieces after a disastrous start to the year.

Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and his deputies have rebuilt unity in the GOP conference over the last couple of months by putting pressure on Senate Democrats to pass a budget and going toe-to-toe with President Obama on sequestration.

One Republican lawmaker pointed to Obama’s recent “charm offensive” on Capitol Hill as a sign of the House GOP’s newfound leverage.  

“I really think the sequester was an issue for the president that caused him to pivot and I think any change from where he was is positive. I certainly hope we can get things done,” Rep. Mike Coffman (R-Colo.) said.

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House Republicans were able to gain the upper hand on their Senate Democratic colleagues in passing their “No Budget, No Pay” bill in January. Soon after the House GOP unveiled its plans for the legislation, Senate Democrats vowed to pass their first budget resolution in four years. 

Meanwhile, House Republicans are poised to pass Rep. Paul Ryan’s (R-Wis.) new budget this week. That will be a significant triumph for House GOP leaders, who have struggled to pass high-profile legislation without some Democratic votes. All Democrats are expected to vote “no” on Ryan’s resolution.

In just two-and-a-half months, House Republican leaders have come a long way — though it can be argued they couldn’t go any lower in late December and early January. 

Boehner failed to pass his “Plan B” bill and later had to accept the Senate-passed “fiscal cliff” bill, which was opposed by House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) and Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.). A day later, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) blasted the Speaker for his handling of Hurricane Sandy relief. 

To top off the tumultuous week, a weakened Boehner had to survive a surprise coup attempt. Amid the chaos enveloping House Republicans at the time, GOP insiders privately worried they could lose the lower chamber in 2014. 

Some feared that the mid-January annual GOP conference retreat would be a nightmare of finger-pointing and name-calling. 

Instead, GOP leaders emerged with an agreement to reshape the fiscal debates raging on Capitol Hill. 

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As a result, Republicans did not have to engage in a bruising public policy debate over granting a lengthy debt-ceiling increase and simply let the $85 billion in automatic, across-the-board sequestration cuts take place.

In one leadership source’s words, House Republicans “took the wind out of President Obama’s sails” by allowing sequestration to happen.

The Obama administration has had its share of stumbles: It had to backtrack from previous doomsday predictions about the sequester cuts, engaged in a public feud with veteran journalist Bob Woodward and attracted criticism for canceling public tours of the White House. 

A new CNN/ORC International poll found that the president’s approval numbers are down 8 points since the start of the year, with 50 percent saying they disapprove. While the survey also found that 54 percent of respondents have a negative view of the GOP, Republicans have leveled the playing field as Obama’s post-election honeymoon has ended.

Claremont McKenna College political science Professor Jack Pitney cited the president’s “declining fortune” as a reason for the GOP’s turn.

“[Obama’s] polling numbers are down and he’s had his rendezvous with reality that the fiscal numbers in the second term are going to be pretty grim,” Pitney said.

Democrats say House Republicans remain on the ropes. 

“By any objective measure — whether it’s every public poll or their failure to solve the budget deficit, the sequester or any other meaningful issue — the House Republicans are at a historic rock bottom,” Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spokeswoman Emily Bittner said. 

Coffman said, “I think [Obama’s] initial calculation was, ‘I’m just going to beat the stuffings out of the Republicans and in 2014, I’m going to flip the House and make my last two years look like the first two years.’ I think that he’s starting to see that that’s an awfully heavy lift to do that.”

“Boehner’s doing well,” according to a GOP member close to the Speaker. “He’s as in-between a rock and hard spot as I’ve ever seen because he’s got enough members of his conference that they can bring something down if they stick together. There’s 30 or 40 of the right-wing guys — and there’s right-wing guys that you can work with and there’s right-wing guys that you can’t work with — but there’s enough of them that they can bring something down if they want to, which makes it really hard for him.” 

Conservative Rep. Tim Huelskamp (R-Kan.), who was involved in the effort to oust Boehner, said the right will back GOP leaders if they keep the promises made at the GOP retreat in Williamsburg, Va. 

Huelskamp pointed out that Republican leaders vowed to let the sequester go into effect, the continuing resolution is set to reflect post-sequester cuts and the Ryan budget would balance in 10 years. 

There have been bumps in the road in February and March for Boehner and his lieutenants, and more political minefields await them this spring.  Earlier this month, 16 House Republicans violated protocol by voting against a procedural motion on the continuing resolution. 

Members of the GOP conference have said they will buck leadership on such motions if Boehner seeks to move bills that don’t attract the support of a majority of House Republicans. 

Boehner has said he doesn’t plan to make a habit of breaking the so-called Hastert Rule, though passing immigration and/or gun bills could necessitate exceptions. 

In meetings with GOP lawmakers last week, Obama has revived “grand bargain” talks on taxes and entitlements. 

Conservative activists have warned the GOP to be wary of such an agreement.

In a Monday op-ed that was posted on Townhall.com, Heritage Action Communication Director Dan Holler wrote: “For Obama, a deal is heads he wins, tails Republicans lose. Not only will his poll numbers increase, but it also has the potential to weaken his political adversaries. Any Republican who votes for a grand bargain littered with tax increases is likely to encounter significant primary opposition. At the very least, that Republican will have to use resources to repel a challenge from the right and will limp into a general election fight against a well-funded Democrat.”