WASHINGTON » The gulf between tea party conservatives and establishment Republicans has grown so wide that it just swallowed up the speaker of the House and may threaten the entire Republican Party and Congress itself.
The question now is whether anyone can tame the House’s rabble-rousing faction, following Speaker John Boehner’s decision to resign rather than face a possible vote to depose him. The stakes are sky-high, given the critical deadlines looming to keep the government running and raise the nation’s borrowing limit.
Yet with the GOP presidential contest riding an anti-establishment wave, it’s become practically compulsory for the candidates to denounce Republican congressional leaders at the first sign of compromise. That makes deal-making that much tougher in Congress — even as some fear it could harm the party’s chances at the White House.
The long-running drama of establishment vs. insurgency played out anew Friday on Capitol Hill as tea party conservatives cheered Boehner’s announcement that he will leave his job at the end of October. The move will ensure that the government stays open into December because the 13-term Ohio lawmaker rejected conservative demands to dare President Barack Obama to veto a government spending bill that cuts money for Planned Parenthood.
But Boehner’s announcement only puts off that fight and others, and promises a chaotic leadership struggle that may result in new leaders facing the same fundamental problem: a core group of 30 or so conservative lawmakers repulsed by compromise and commanding enough votes to stymie leadership plans, despite the GOP’s large majority.
"You’re going to have a new speaker who is going to have to wonder if he or she is going to be the next person losing their head," said Rep. Bill Flores, R-Texas. "We are a tough group to lead. We are a really tough group to lead."
Boehner made his announcement the day after meeting with members of the House Freedom Caucus, a group of hardliners dedicated to fighting for conservative principles at any cost. Several of those lawmakers informed Boehner they would support a floor vote to oust him from his speakership.
Rather than put the House through the turmoil of such a vote, which hadn’t been tried in over 100 years, Boehner told stunned lawmakers he would leave Congress next month. He endorsed his deputy, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California. McCarthy is favored to prevail, though he quickly drew a challenger in Rep. Daniel Webster, R-Fla., a former speaker of the House in Florida who unsuccessfully challenged Boehner earlier this year.
Boehner’s announcement delighted hardline conservatives even as it dismayed many more establishment-minded members. Later, many of these lawmakers urged strategies to neutralize the hardline crowd and short-circuit their tactics. Two years ago, those tactics resulted in a 16-day partial government shutdown over Obama’s health care law; most Republicans believe that impasse damaged their party.
"I’m sure some of those guys have Cheshire grins right now," said Rep. Charlie Dent, R-Pa. He advocated a strong line against them: "’If you’re not willing to govern, we will make you marginal and irrelevant and we will find those who will help us.’"
Said Rep. Pat Tiberi, R-Ohio, a Boehner ally: "We have to govern here. We don’t get to go on talk radio and say whatever we want."
Yet Boehner’s move seemed only to embolden the hardliners. Several on Capitol Hill and off suggested that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., would be their next target, and the group Tea Party Patriots began circulating a petition calling for his removal.
McConnell had pledged that the GOP Congress would show voters that Republicans can govern in the runup to the 2016 elections. But conservatives complain that the GOP takeover of the Senate this year has not yielded results, and now a House run by less-proven leaders may test McConnell’s promise once more.
"Mitch McConnell is infinitely worse as a leader than Boehner. He surrenders at the sight of battle every time," said Rep. Matt Salmon, R-Ariz., one of the rebels. "We made a lot of promises to the American people that if we took the Senate that we would do certain things and those things have not been accomplished."
Democrats were at turns gleeful at the GOP discomfort and grim over the future turmoil it portends. Some lawmakers in both parties hope Boehner will use the month remaining in his tenure to jam through politically painful votes, including highway funding legislation and a renewal of the Export-Import Bank, which Republicans allowed to expire this year.
"These people don’t want government. They just want their way or the highway," said Rep. Bill Pascrell, D-N.J. He said those who have challenged Boehner are "not going to be satisfied until there is total chaos."
The situation has come about even as Republican leaders and outside groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce have worked diligently in recent cycles to elect mainstream candidates, not fringe tea partyers. They can claim successes, particularly in the Senate. But in the House, hardline conservatives may continue to upset leaders’ plans to advance a governing agenda, even with a new speaker.
"The disagreements within the conference have never been about John Boehner’s personality, they’ve been disagreements over tactics," said David Schnittger, Boehner’s former longtime deputy chief of staff. "And they’re probably going to continue."
Associated Press writers Alan Fram, Andrew Taylor, Mary Clare Jalonick and Deb Riechmann contributed to this report.