House conservatives rebel

Long-suppressed tensions among House Republicans burst into full public view yesterday when 29 conservatives voted against the rules for floor debate on a $91 billion emergency spending bill for the Iraq war and Gulf Coast recovery.

The fate of the rule was never in doubt — Rep. John Murtha (Pa.) led 22 of his fellow Democrats in helping GOP leaders defeat the conservative rebellion — but the open infighting comes at a bad time for House Republicans, many of whom are increasingly worried about November’s midterm election.

Despite its failure to alter the massive spending bill, which the House is expected to pass today, the conservative insurrection portends trouble for Republican leaders as they try to move budget and spending bills.

“It was a strong signal from House conservatives that a number of us are willing to do whatever it takes to slow spending,” said Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), who voted against the rule.

Some aides saw the rule revolt as a test of the relationship between new Majority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) and the conservative Republican Study Committee (RSC).

Rep. John Shadegg (R-Ariz.), a former RSC chairman and a key Boehner supporter after his own leadership campaign fell short, voted against the rule.

Members of the RSC wanted to have separate votes on defense accounts and money for the hurricane-battered Gulf Coast. Ultimately, they were looking for a way to offset Gulf Coast spending with cuts to other programs. But they ran into a thicket of political and procedural obstacles, pitting them against appropriators, with Boehner in between.

After several days of proposals and counterproposals, mediated primarily by Boehner, Republicans on both sides pointed fingers and accused each other of reneging on earlier deals to resolve the dispute.

“It’s unfair to make members of Congress choose between our troops and fiscal discipline,” said Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.), chairman of the RSC. “That’s the choice that our colleagues are faced with this week.”

But Boehner’s intervention was a relief to some Republicans who worried that the absence of forceful former Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) could be disastrous. The episode “speaks volumes to Boehner’s leadership,” one House Republican aide said.

The leadership-backed rule included protections for an amendment simply to strike all of the Gulf Coast recovery programs, which amount to $19 billion. But that option, which could have difficulty garnering majority support, did not satisfy the RSC.

Pence rose during the weekly Republican Conference meeting yesterday and announced that he was going to vote against the rule and recommend other members follow suit. Soon after, RSC aides circulated an e-mail to committee members and staff outlining reasons to vote against the rule.

“Contrary to others’ assertions, there was no deal with the RSC,” the e-mail read in part.

Organized defiance on procedural votes is rare in a Republican Conference that has maintained its tight grip on the legislative process by emphasizing party discipline. But conservatives say their party has lost its way amid continuing deficits and mounting national debt. Under Pence’s leadership, the RSC has been increasingly willing to go head to head with leadership.

Several RSC members made it plain yesterday that this will not be their last stand on procedural matters.

“There will be other votes in the future where Democrats are less inclined to support rules,” Pence said.

Murtha, the target of Republican attacks when he called for a quick redeployment of American troops last year, has long worked with Republican leaders when they need Democratic votes to ensure smooth passage of spending bills.

“Jack will always stand up to support the troops, and that’s what he did today,” said Rep. David Hobson (R-Ohio), a member of the Appropriations Committee.

Some Senate conservatives are sure to echo their House counterparts’ call for offsetting the Gulf Coast money, but they seem unlikely to find a sympathetic ear in Senate Appropriations Chairman Thad Cochran (R-Miss.), whose home state was pounded by Hurricane Katrina.

Cochran, who is due to mark up his version of the legislation the first week of April, promised he would give colleagues “a fair hearing.” But he also made clear that he would prefer not to offset the money.

“The people of the Gulf Coast would say it’s a fine time to get conservative now, after running up some of the biggest deficits in the nation’s history,” said Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.).

Patrick O’Connor contributed to this story.