WASHINGTON » While Speaker John A. Boehner was harsh in his public criticism of conservative advocacy groups opposed to a new bipartisan budget deal, his attack on the organizations was even more pointed when he was behind closed doors.
"They are not fighting for conservative principles," Boehner told rank-and-file House Republicans during a private meeting Wednesday as he seethed and questioned the motives of the groups for piling on against the plan before it was even made public.
"They are not fighting for conservative policy," he continued, according to accounts of those present. "They are fighting to expand their lists, raise more money and grow their organizations, and they are using you to do it. It’s ridiculous."
Representatives of the activist groups dismissed that claim and called the speaker’s denunciation a diversion tactic.
Still, Boehner’s tough talk in taking on interests considered vital to generating Republican voter enthusiasm and building fierce opposition to President Barack Obama’s agenda appeared to represent a turning point in Republican coalition building in the aftermath of the government shutdown.
His break with the groups was magnified because it came after Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader, had condemned a conservative group that has backed one of his opponents. And Boehner went on the offensive just as an influential staff member on Capitol Hill was dismissed from a high-profile post with the main organization for House conservatives, adding to the appearance that ties between the activist right and elected Republicans were unraveling.
Republican congressional leaders blame advocacy groups like Heritage Action for America and the Senate Conservatives Fund for the shutdown — for goading House and Senate Republicans into a dead-end insistence on financing the government only if the new health law was overturned. The predictable impasse over that demand and the eventual Republican capitulation damaged the standing of Republicans as well as Congress.
"The shutdown was the first time a group largely drove the Republican Party in the Senate towards something that was disadvantageous," one top Republican Senate official said.
In addition, some congressional leaders are no longer willing to remain silent to avoid antagonizing important political partners. They have seen a clear downside to the rising influence of outside conservative organizations that promote divisive primary fights, producing flawed candidates who lose winnable seats to Democrats.
The 2014 election cycle probably represents McConnell’s last chance to regain the title of majority leader, and he seems determined not to let conservative activists spoil his chances. His actions and comments both publicly and privately since the shutdown have shown that he does not intend to brook much interference from conservative activists.
Just as important, McConnell does not want to regain the majority only to find himself surrounded by conservative firebrands such as Rep. Steve Stockman of Texas, who is now challenging Sen. John Cornyn, the No. 2 Senate Republican. Boehner has proved that presiding over an ungovernable majority is not an enviable job.
Seeming to relish his new liberation, Boehner on Thursday skewered the organizations for a second straight day, just a few hours before the House overwhelmingly approved the budget plan at the center of the dispute with the support of 169 Republicans. Sixty-two opposed it.
"They’re pushing our members in places where they don’t want to be," Boehner said. "And frankly, I just think that they’ve lost all credibility."
Conservative leaders said they viewed Boehner’s attacks as tantamount to a declaration of war and accused him of trying to change the subject from a budget plan that increases spending and sacrifices earlier hard-won fiscal victories by House Republicans.
Dan Holler, the communications director for Heritage Action, said he found it particularly remarkable that one of the biggest fundraisers in Washington would suggest that a group was doing something to generate contributions.
"This is absurd," Holler said. "Only in Washington could you have guys who go to PAC fundraisers at swanky restaurants accuse outside groups of doing something for fundraising. It is one of those petty attacks that is intended to shift the conversation away from the policy."
The activists also say the effort to point to the shutdown as a rationale for trying to limit the clout of the groups is something of a feint to disguise the fact that some House Republicans felt hemmed in by the existing spending levels and were eager to generate some new money through the budget deal.
"There are a lot of Republican appropriators and Armed Services Committee members who hate being limited to $967 billion," said Tim Phillips, the president of Americans for Prosperity, another group that strongly opposes the budget plan.
Activists differed on the political fallout from the intensifying feud. But at a minimum, one warned, it has the potential to sap energy from the conservative base that will be critical for the party in the midterm elections. Others said it would almost certainly fuel efforts by movement conservatives to challenge incumbent Republicans and try to move the party further to the right.
"It’s time for Americans to rise up and begin replacing establishment Republicans with true conservatives in the 2014 primary elections," said Matt Hoskins, the executive director of the Senate Conservatives Fund, the group that has drawn McConnell’s wrath. "There’s no question anymore about where these leaders stand."
Top advisers to House and Senate Republicans say their bosses have reached their limit with the threats of primary challenges and retribution from supposed allies on conservative policy. And they note that many of the groups opposing the budget deal because it breaks the spending caps set in the 2011 Budget Control Act fiercely opposed that deal as well and now see it as inviolable.
As for Boehner, he did not seem too alarmed at the prospect of political repercussions arising from his break with the network of conservative advocacy groups. He just seemed fed up.
"I don’t care what they do," he said.
Carl Hulse, New York Times