Conservatives denounce GOP ‘Pledge’ as sellout, inside job

Jon Ward Contributor
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House Republicans have been relatively successful this week at presenting a united front around their “Pledge to America,” but only through a strategic outreach campaign to lawmakers, media and outside groups, that has managed to keep deep dissatisfaction over several key issues largely under wraps.

Still, interviews with Republican aides reveal that many in the GOP caucus are unhappy that there was no earmark ban and no promise to pass a balanced budget amendment in the proposal, which was unveiled Thursday by House Minority Leader John Boehner. The inclusion of a health insurance provision considered to be mandate angered many conservative lawmakers.

“We’re going to repeal Obamacare and then bring a large chunk of it back. It’s kind of crazy,” said a senior Republican official.

And social conservative leaders said that a commitment to upholding the Defense of Marriage Act was dropped at the last moment.

“They kept talking about realism. They wanted it to be realistic, something we could do, not pipe dreams,” said one House aide who said that while leadership sought extensive input, they threw many of the ideas they received “in the trash heap.”

In addition, a 21-page proposal requiring all legislation to be posted online for 72 hours prior to a vote was not distributed to Republican lawmakers until the night before the rollout. Many Republican offices didn’t even see it until it leaked to the media Wednesday afternoon, leading one aide to write in an e-mail to fellow legislative directors: “We shouldn’t have to get our own agenda from CBS News.”

But skittish rank-and-file members were reassured at a Wednesday night caucus meeting by leadership aides who distributed a National Review editorial praising the “Pledge.” The National Review editorial had been prearranged, however, by Neil Bradley, a top leadership aide* who is close to April Ponnuru, the executive director of the National Review Institute, and Kate O’Beirne, NRI’s president.

O’Beirne denied the allegation, calling it “absolutely, categorically false.”

House GOP leadership aides and lawmakers justified the lack of an earmark ban by telling others who pressed for one that they would implement it after the midterm elections on Nov. 2.

“They said, ‘We don’t want to pick a fight with our appropriators now. That’s a fight we can pick after the election,’” said one House Republican aide.

But the aide said that many in the Republican caucus don’t believe Boehner, House Minority Whip Eric Cantor, or any other members of the leadership actually want a ban.

“Once we’re in power they’ll say, ‘Let’s find a reasonable way to earmark,’ which of course the Tea Party will see as total capitulation. Most people around here don’t realize the extent to which Joe America sees earmarks as the poster child for out of control Washington spending,” the aide said.

Another aide who was present in meetings to draft the document agreed: “They already have an earmark moratorium, and not to continue that is a pretty huge flag that they want to get back into the earmark business.”

“Leadership doesn’t do anything unless they’re boxed in. So they’ll do small stuff. They’ll repeal stimulus. They’ll do these YouCut votes. But in terms of dealing with entitlement reform, challenging the president to deal with the long term fiscal imbalances, they aren’t willing to at least articulate it in their document. I do not see them willing to legislate and govern in that area,” the aide said.

Boehner spokesman Kevin Smith said that a Republican-controlled Congress “will never go back to business as usual.”

“The Pledge is an agenda for this Congress, and Republicans have already unilaterally banned earmarks in the House,” Smith said. “While we wish Democrats had joined us, House Republicans earmark moratorium has been a success because we saw less money spent on fewer earmarks.”

“And we showed that changing this system is possible – and, after that, we will never go back to business as usual,” Smith said.

But earmarks isn’t the only sore point for GOP conservatives.

The proposal that health insurance companies be required to provide coverage to all regardless of preexisting conditions – which many argue would require a mandate for universal coverage to offset rising costs – flabbergasted some of the more conservative Republican lawmakers.

Others, such as Yuval Levin, have argued on National Review’s website that the the provision “does not create an added incentive for healthy people to avoid getting insurance, and so absolutely would not involve an individual mandate.”

And GOP leadership told members that they would not include a balanced budget amendment promise because such a pledge would be “too hard.”

GOP staffers gave mixed responses on how widespread unhappiness is within the House Republican lawmakers.

“Overall I think people are pretty happy, pretty satisfied. There are some pretty decent ideas in there,” one senior Republican aide said. “But a lot of folks are saying, this isn’t exactly an agenda to storm the castle with. This may not convince the Tea Party folks that we’ve learned our lesson.”

Another said discontent is “pretty widespread.”

“If you did a poll today you’re not going to get that. But I think members are in this period right now where they feel like they need to salute and not have articles about dissension in the ranks,” the Republican staffer said.

In addition to the prearranged National Review editorial, objections and complaints were blunted and pacified by the GOP leadership’s lengthy and extensive listening tour that they conducted with many of their members, which began months ago. By the time members went home for August recess, a draft of the document already existed, and leadership knew pretty much what they wanted it to say, but they continued to solicit input from members.

“There was a lot of participation sought but I think there was always a sense of where the top leaders, particularly Boehner, Cantor, and [Kevin] McCarthy and their staff wanted to go on this,” a staffer said.

The key staff who wrote the document were Mike Sommers from Boehner’s office, Bradley from Cantor’s, and Brian Wild, a Boehner staff essentially on loan to McCarthy whose lobbying past drew attention earlier this week.

Lawmakers such as Jim Jordan of Ohio, Tom Price of Georgia, and Steve King of Iowa were upset that there was no balanced budget amendment. Jeff Flake of Arizona was one of several who pushed for a ban on earmarks. And Mike Pence of Indiana led the charge for the social values groups, battling Boehner’s office, who wanted all mention of gay marriage out. There was also talk of removing the portion that called for codifying the Hyde Amendment and permanently ending the taxpayer funding of abortion.

According to outside groups, Boehner’s office – particularly chief of staff Barry Jackson – wanted to keep any mention of gay marriage out of the document all together. But in the end, groups such as the Family Research Council and the American Principles Project succeeded in getting at least a vague promise “to honor families, traditional marriage, life, and the private and faith-based organizations that form the core of our American values.”

*Cantor aide Neil Bradley was originally identified as an aide to Boehner.

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