Boehner-right fight moves to Senate

The GOP divide over the role of outside groups is heating up in the Senate, just days, after Speaker John Boehner railed that conservative organizations had “lost all credibility.”

Several prominent GOP senators on Tuesday echoed Boehner’s (R-Ohio) frustration with those organizations, agreeing that outfits like Heritage Action and the Senate Conservatives Fund were out only for themselves and are hurting Republican efforts to take over both chambers of Congress.

“I’ve said for a long time that there are some outside groups who do what they do solely to raise money,” said Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.). “I’m glad that people are wising up.” 

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Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), whose primary challenger in 2012 was supported by FreedomWorks, the Tea Party-linked group, added that those organizations “aren’t really for building a conservative coalition.”

“I don’t have a desire to stick it to anybody, but I’ve got to say: I’m as concerned as anybody about people who split our party so we stay a permanent minority,” Hatch told The Hill.

But conservative firebrands said Tuesday that Boehner’s  comments last week were off base. The Speaker also insisted that the outside groups were “using our members, and they’re using the American people,” while accusing the organizations of pushing Republicans into a losing government shutdown fight this fall.

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) said those grassroots groups, which also include Club for Growth and Americans for Prosperity, were “the lifeblood and spirit” of the Republican Party.

“You talk to the grassroots folks around the country, they’re worried about the future of the country,” Paul told reporters Tuesday while sporting a Heritage Foundation tie. 

“I don’t think he fully appreciates where people are, and how worried people are about the precarious situation we have because of $17 trillion debt,” Paul, a potential 2016 candidate for president, added about Boehner. 

Boehner’s frustration with Heritage Action and the other conservative groups boiled over last week after those organizations began lobbying against the budget deal struck by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) before the agreement was even finalized. 

In many ways, Boehner’s outburst was a long time coming. Those groups have opposed practically every significant fiscal deal struck during Boehner’s tenure, and GOP leaders have long been uneasy about the significant sway the groups have among conservative lawmakers. 

“John obviously feels very strongly about that,” said Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.), a close Boehner ally who is not running for reelection and who has picked his own fights with outside groups.

“They’re always going to do their thing. I would just hope that they would take a position that there’s a consensus we want to retake the Senate,” he said. “They will play a key role in it if they’re willing to be supportive.”

In fact, Senate Republicans have also, for two straight cycles, blamed those groups for backing insurgent candidates who have lost winnable races, costing the GOP a chance at controlling both chambers.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, whose primary challenger is backed by the Senate Conservatives Fund, has lashed out at that group, calling their efforts counterproductive. On Tuesday, Minority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas), also facing a primary next year, said he sympathized with Boehner.

“I understand that he’s got to find a way to bring Republicans together, and we’ve seen the consequences of what happens when Republicans are divided,” Cornyn said. “I understand his frustration.” 

Meanwhile, those groups have not taken Boehner’s tongue-lashing lying down. Matt Hoskins of the Senate Conservatives Fund said this week that Boehner declared war against conservatives, and the Speaker and McConnell were “using their power to discriminate against people they see as a political threat” — just like the IRS.

Still, even Senate Republicans who voted against the budget agreement crafted by Ryan and Murray sounded tired of the influence of outside groups. 

“I want to solve problems. Any group that gets in the way of that — then I don’t have any patience for them,” said Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.), who was elected to the Senate during the Tea Party wave of 2010 but has adopted a pragmatic role as a lawmaker. She voted “no” on the budget deal.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), one of the dozen Senate Republicans who helped the budget deal clear the procedural hurdle Tuesday, added that October’s shutdown debacle was the final straw for many Republicans in the chamber.

“I think he made it clear in those remarks he made that that’s not going to be the way he operates in the future,” McCain said about Boehner on Tuesday. “When they shut down the government, that was the end as far as a lot of us were concerned. That was a seminal moment over here.”

At the same time, other Senate Republicans declined to publicly criticize the outside groups, underscoring how delicate the situation is for many in the GOP. Ryan and Rep. Jeb Hensarling (Texas), a former member of House Republican leadership, have both suggested that Boehner should have kept his criticisms private.

Sen. John Hoeven (R-N.D.) said outside groups had every right to make their viewpoint known, and their perspective should “definitely” be acknowledged.

“We need the whole spectrum there,” he said. “At the end of the day, we all want the same things.”

Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.), the chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, also declined to take a swipe at organizations that will clearly play a role in what sort of candidates the GOP has on the ballot in November 2014. 

“I welcome their input. It’s just one of many factors we ought to be considering,” said Moran, who added that he disagreed with Boehner’s assertions that groups like Heritage Action have lost credibility.

Still other GOP senators didn’t want to touch the issue at all. 

“No comment. That’s a House issue,” said Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), who served six terms in the House before being elected to the Senate last year.