By Susan Ferrechio — March 5, 2015
A beleaguered House Speaker John Boehner is suddenly relying on Democrats rather than his fellow Republicans.
For the second day in a row, Wednesday, his House leadership team turned to Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi’s Democrats to help pass major legislation and overcome determined opposition from dozens of GOP conservatives.
It’s a far cry from January, when Republicans took control of both chambers of Congress, and Boehner, R-Ohio, returned to Capitol Hill buoyed by expectations of a fruitful relationship with the new Senate Majority Leader, Mitch McConnell.
And conservatives fear it will swing the Republican agenda to the left, and push them permanently to the sidelines.
“We were hoping to move everything to the right, “Rep. John Fleming, R-La., told the Washington Examiner after casting a “no” vote on a bill authorizing spending on Amtrak, which passed with overwhelming Democratic support and substantial Republican opposition. “Looks like to me they are moving it to the Left. They’ve given up on us so they are going to the Democrats to get votes.”
The House easily passed the Passenger Rail Reform and Investment Act, which cuts federal funding authorization for Amtrak by 40 percent, but did not go far enough for conservatives. It also, reforms the railway’s accounting system so that the profitable Northeast corridor routes can keep and reinvest more money.
The bill passed 316 to 101, but 184 of the votes to pass it came from Democrats. The legislation, opposed by fiscal hawks at such organizations as Heritage Action and the Club for Growth, got 132 GOP votes, but 101 Republicans, including eight committee chairmen, voted against it. Those opponents came mostly from the party’s right wing, and Rep. Tom McClintock of California had earlier in the day tried to amend the bill to end federal subsidies for passenger rail entirely.
The vote came just one day after House Republican leaders pushed through a key bill with the votes of Democrats rather than of their own conference members. Tuesday’s bill funded the Department of Homeland Security until Sept. 30 without curbing President Obama’s executive order shielding millions of illegal immigrants from deportation. In that vote, too, conservatives were sidelined.
The $40 billion Homeland Security measure came to the floor after Boehner allegedly cut a deal with Pelosi, D-Calif., last week.
“Who is really running the floor over here?” Rep. Tim Huelskamp, R-Kan., said. “John Boehner has so lost control of the House. He has to call Nancy Pelosi.”
Republican leadership aides deny a move to shift the legislation to the left in order to win over Democrats and skirt conservative opposition.
Before agreeing to a “clean” bill, Boehner spent weeks holding out for a Homeland Security bill that defunded Obama’s executive actions.
“The speaker and our entire leadership team’s goal is always to work with the entire House Republican conference to get the best possible conservative public policy,” Boehner spokesman Michael Steel told the Washington Examiner.
But dozens of conservative lawmakers have been making it difficult for House Republican leaders.
Last week, conservative opposition forced House GOP leaders to pull legislation from the floor that would have revamped the Bush-era No Child Left Behind Act. Conservatives said it did not go far enough to free local education from federal control. Now the bill’s future is uncertain.
More conservative opposition lies ahead as lawmakers begin grappling with whether to restore spending hikes that were capped under the 2011 Budget Control Act, also known as the sequester. Conservatives don’t want to lift the budget caps imposed by the law, while other Republicans are in favor of lifting the caps to allow more government spending, particularly for defense.
Conservatives are also likely to oppose raising the nation’s debt limit once again, which will be on the table this summer.
Some Republicans say the conservative opposition means the GOP leadership has little choice but to partner with Democrats.
“These are difficult choices for the Republican leadership,” Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., told the Examiner. “Congress has not been productive. They are trying to show the American people we can move things forward in a positive fashion. The reality of it is, sometimes you have to compromise.”
Republicans on Wednesday touted the Amtrak bill as a modernization and reform measure for the money-losing passenger rail system.
The bill authorizes a pilot program that would allow private companies to take over some rail routes and implements new taxpayer safeguards.
Lawmakers from both parties cheered the legislation on the House floor as an example of Congress steering clear of the gridlock that has become customary and passing a bill that has a chance of becoming law.
“Considering what is going on in Congress now, this bill is my idea of a perfect situation,” Rep. Michael Capuano, D-Mass., said. “We didn’t get everything we wanted, they didn’t get some of the amendments they wanted, yet we are moving forward.”
But conservatives were fuming.
The legislation was a capitulation to Democrats, they said, because it doesn’t cut actual spending on Amtrak, (authorization merely approves funding). Amtrak funding has remained at about $1.4 billion. And the pilot privatization program involves only two routes.
The bill authorizes $7.2 billion in spending on Amtrak and other rail programs through 2019.
Conservatives said it cost too much.
“We are forgetting our core principles as a party,” Rep. Walter Jones, R-N.C., warned, as he headed in to vote against the bill. “And I think you need to lead with those core principles. If Boehner continues to reach out to Democrats to pass legislation, it’s going to continue to divide the party. Not just here, but across the nation.”