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” Their approaches set the stage for a test of their leadership that will provide a roadmap for how they will handle even bigger budget fights ahead.”

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The title of this post is a line buried in the New York Times’ lead story on the budget negotiations. It tells the whole story, and underscores why it is so crucial that the Speaker not accept a deal without major wins on the four riders of greatest importance to the GOP: A halt to the rollout of Obamacare regs and EPA’s carbon rules, and the complete defunding of Planned parenthood and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Leaks from the House GOP’s caucus earlier this week were alarming as they indicated that the Speaker’s team had set up a public display of support for the Speaker, which is the sort of tactic associated with leadership teams that know they are about to get hammered. This fuels the fear that the Speaker’s closest allies expect him to fold and expect that the conservative grassroots and Tea Party activists are going to be outraged and that the Speaker will need some cover from the freshmen.

This worry was confirmed as legitimate by conversations on air yesterday with Iowa’s Steve King (transcript here) and Georgia’s Tom Price (transcript here.)

King’s comments about the caucus meeting –“[b]ut the effort of people stepping up to the microphone and either giving the pledge to support the plan, or sometimes accusing people who disagreed as not being loyal members of the tribe”– signals the Speaker’s troops are worried that whatever “deal” comes out of the negotiations will not hold get near-unanimous support. This is confirmed by another comment from Ohio’s Steven LaTourette, provided in The Hill:

“The Speaker expressed his disappointment with the 54 people who took a walk on us a couple weeks ago and said that regardless of how you feel on the issue, if you send your guy in to negotiate a contract and the other side knows you’ve got nothing behind you, then you aren’t going to be successful. That, I think, galvanized people more than anything else.”

Who “took a walk on us?” Again, the Beltway message machine has no idea how this sounds to conservatives and donors and volunteers that provided the majority that now governs the House. The problem isn’t elected representatives “taking a walk” on their party colleagues in D.C., it is those representatives “taking a walk” on the people who sent them to D.C. The key is not to threaten but to persuade, and to relay not the message that the Speaker demands allegiance but that the Speaker is not going to fold.

Here’s a related exchange from my conversation with Congressman Tom Price, who chairs the conservative Republican Study Group:

HH: When the Republicans got together in caucus the other night, and people stood up and said the Speaker’s the quarterback, he’s called the play, we’ve got to get behind it, rah, rah…

TP: Yeah, but that’s the kind of, I mean, this is a team sport here in Washington when it ultimately comes down to shirts and skins when the bill goes out. And you see whether or not the team is able to stick together. And the goal of the conference is to get as many people pushing to move things as far to the conservative side as possible. And then once you’re able to get it as far as you can, then each individual member has to make a decision as to whether or not that’s far enough for them.

HH: You know, Congressman, the trouble with that analogy is, though, it treats voters and activists like fans as opposed to owners. And I’m afraid…

TP: Not at all.

In fact the House GOP leadership hasn’t even treated voters like fans. The communication strategy seems to be to ignore them and they will go away. This is in sharp contrast to Paul Ryan’s rollout of the budget plan which is textbook new media overcommunication, and effectively so. Some in the House GOP counted on Ryan’s rollout to lessen the importance of the CR deal but it in fact accomplished the opposite. The Ryan plan is great and crucial, and its introduction raises the obvious question: If the Speaker and his team cannot bring home a win on the relatively small amounts and relatively few legislative riders now, how will they bring anything back in the fall?

The answer is in the line drawn from the Times as this post’s title: If they don’t win a lot now, they won’t win anything then.

The good news is that the Speaker’s public comments are consistently strong though far too few, and he hasn’t been forced into any box or taken any of Chuck Schumer’s absurd bait. The president and Harry Reid are the ones demanding a shutdown today, and a shut down that will interrupt military pay to boot. If the Speaker stays on message he will continue to win the battle for the public’s consent.

Thus the focus has to be on message discipline, not party discipline. Get the former right, and bring home a good agreement, and the latter will follow. All the whips in all the legislative bodies in the world won’t keep a caucus together that gets flayed by its voters at home, and a folding chair performance now will cost the freshmen and any other GOPers enormously in terms of credibility and future support.

One final conversation from yesterday’s show also deserves review, my talk with Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions. (Transcript here.) I asked Sessions whether continuing the “gang of six” talks on deficit reduction makes any sense after Democrat Kent Conrad dismissed Ryan’s budget out of hand:

HH: Now Senator, I’ve got a number of questions for you, but the number one is Kent Conrad came out today and said that the Paul Ryan plan is dead on arrival. Why in the world are we negotiating, why is the gang of six still meeting if he’s not willing to negotiate everything?

JS: You know, he said it was unreasonable and unsustainable, but I didn’t know he had absolutely gone that far. I think that does raise serious questions about whether any kind of agreement is possible, and says that we’re going to have to do what I felt we were going to have to do from the beginning, which is battle this out over every bill, next year’s budget, the debt limit, and just like they did in ’95, remember, when unfortunately, they shut the government down for a while? But the Republicans under Newt Gingrich and team balanced the budget.

HH: Yup.

JS: They balanced the budget. And it’s never easy to make changes, but Hugh, this thing is, we’re in a deeper hole than in ’94. This is a deep hole, and Paul Ryan’s plan is an honest, responsible, serious plan to get us out of this fix.

HH: Yeah, Senator Sessions, what disappoints me so much about Kent Conrad is I actually had been talking with your colleague, Tom Coburn and some others, and they said you know, these are real, these are important discussions. But when he comes out and does that on the heels of Chuck Schumer last week, I just think they’re all politicized. They have no intention of dealing with the serious problems confronting us. Or is there any reason that I should conclude otherwise?

JS: Hugh, that’s what I’m concluding, in all honesty. That’s exactly what I’ve concluded. And nobody knows. Maybe something good can happen yet. But it seems to me that we’ve been lulled along here. It seems to me that based on Conrad’s latest statement, and Schumer’s statements attacking the Tea Parties, saying that these reasonable cuts are extreme and those kinds of things, it indicates to me that there’s no serious understanding of the threat this nation faces, and the need to get our house in order.

If there is a fiscal crisis that threatens not just continued deterioration in the dollar but another fiscal stroke and panic of the sort we saw in 2008, then the Speaker and Leader McConnell need to stand on first principles and warn the country and demand that the Democrats acknowledge the results of November’s elections. They need to stop the side bars and the diversions, and reject the endless provocations of Schumer and the other grade school types and talk pointedly and seriously with the public about the problem and why the shutdown is being jammed down by the president, just as he did with Obamacare and the failed stimulus.

It is a crucial moment, and the sooner the Beltway GOP starts focusing all of its efforts on the substance and stops trying to spin the politics in the caucus, the better off we will all be.



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