WILLIAMSBURG, Va. — When Republicans rolled through the heavily guarded gates of the Kingsmill resort here Wednesday for a three-day annual Republican retreat, it was under a cloud of tension and infighting that had pitted House Speaker John Boehner against stubborn conservatives throughout the 112th Congress.
By the time the retreat ended, Republicans across the spectrum of conservatism had apparently come to an agreement on the most polarizing immediate fight that awaits them: the debt ceiling.
How was the détente, however temporary, reached? It depends on which side is doing the spinning.
One aide to a conservative member compared the fight between Boehner and Congressional conservatives with the Biblical rivalry between David and King Saul. According to the Old Testament, Saul (in this analogy, Boehner) was threatened by divinely-selected David (the conservatives), and tried repeatedly to kill him. Then, one night, David sneaked into Saul’s cave while he was sleeping, cut off a piece of his robe, and showed it to the King the next day to prove he had the upper hand.
“Saul saw that David could have killed him, and he was humbled by it,” the aide said, suggesting Boehner has recognized the power of the conservatives in his conference.
That may be wishful thinking on the conservatives’ part, but the Republican proposal — hashed out between Boehner and conservatives over the course of the three-day retreat — to extend the debt limit for an additional three months seems to indicate some compromise on both sides.
The plan does not include spending cuts — which has always been a major sticking point for Boehner’s conference. Rather, Republicans agreed to include language requiring the Senate to pass a budget and language that would withhold lawmakers’ pay if they do not. It is far from clear whether that provision is even remotely constitutional, and the bill is unlikely to pass the Senate, but it’s still a victory for Boehner, no matter how slight.
When asked if there were any hard feelings on display, Rep. John Fleming said “In fact, just the reverse.”
“Having open forums where we get up and talk in front of microphones and talk to the speaker and leadership and ad hoc committees, that’s exactly what we want to do. So, no, if anything we’re complimenting the Speaker,” Fleming said.
Lawmakers also said that conservative leaders in the House like Rep. Tom Price, who has been critical of the leadership of late, didn’t turn the retreat into an extension of the fiscal cliff civil war, and instead played constructive roles in the debate.
And Reps. Tim Huelskamp, Justin Amash and Raul Labrador — who have all been very critical of Boehner — played no significant role in the retreat at all, according to multiple colleagues.
Much of the good will seems to stem from his handling of the short-term extension to the debt limit proposal leadership announced Friday.
Fleming said Boehner assured the conference he will no longer negotiate with the president and then bring a deal to the House. “Those days have ended,” Fleming said, noting that plan for the short-term extension came together as a result of hours of discussions between leaders and rank and file members.
The internal agreement allows Republicans to “reorder the fights to increase our odds of success,” a leadership aide said Friday, adding that “members appreciated the fact that leadership allowed an open robust discussion.”
And that’s no small feat for Boehner and his leadership team, which ended the 112th Congress divided over the fiscal cliff, facing a growing revolt amongst Republicans, and holding virtually no serious leverage over Democrats and the White House.
Of course, even if a three-month delay of the debt ceiling is passed, it is far from clear that Boehner will be able to regain control of his conference. The fight over the sequester and a looming government shutdown remain, and Republicans have little political capital to use in fighting with Democrats.
The delay could give the Ohio Republican enough maneuvering room to regain his footing in the House and with Obama. But all the while, conservatives will be dangling a piece of Boehner’s robe in front of him.