POLITICS
09/28/2015 12:25 am ET

From John Boehner To Government Shutdown, 2016 Campaign Is Pushing Congress To The Edge

GOP candidates' inflammatory rhetoric is giving fresh fire to hard-liners.

WASHINGTON -- To understand what drove John Boehner out of office, and the government to the brink of  another shutdown, look no further than the campaign trail, and the increasingly inflammatory rhetoric coming out of the mouths of candidates.

The race to capture the Republican presidential nomination in 2016 has left candidates jockeying to be the ultimate outsider, playing to the hearts of voters fed up with politics as usual. And one of the most battered targets of those candidates is Boehner.

Why isn’t the government securing the border? Boehner. Why isn’t Obamacare or Planned Parenthood defunded? Boehner. The outright disgust at those in the old guard, or those who have served entire careers in elected office, is a wave that candidates like Donald Trump, Carly Fiorina and Ben Carson are riding eagerly, proclaiming their outsider status with angry taunts at immigrants, Muslims, and establishment Republicans.

That anti-Washington fervor lit a fresh fire within the ranks of conservative hard-liners already in Congress. After Boehner’s resignation announcement, lawmakers who were a part of the movement to oust him were eager to make a ready connection to all that dark energy on the campaign trail. 

Rep. Mick Mulvaney (R-S.C.) charged that if people in Washington had any doubt whether there was a sizable group within the Republican Party that carried heavy anger and disappointment, that evaporated Friday morning.

This anger and frustration about the way our party is being run is real, and now it’s very, very tangible,” said Mulvaney. “By the way, that is a direct reflection of what the people are feeling back home, not only in my district, but all across [the state]. I think it’s the same group of people who are voting for Donald Trump, Carly Fiorina and Carson.”

Mulvaney added that those three candidates, “plus [Sens.] Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Ted Cruz (R-Texas),” would have support from about 65 percent of the voters in South Carolina. And it stands to reason then, he said, that those candidates were “the folks who spoke in the last 24 hours about their frustrations” with Congress as Boehner appeared ready to pass a clean government funding measure, instead of placating conservatives with an amendment that would defund Planned Parenthood and ultimately cause a shutdown.

Asked if the rhetoric, and accusations coming from the campaign trail about Boehner and other old guard leaders, gave them the momentum and ammunition they needed, Mulvaney said “yes.”

“What it gave us is another example of how perhaps folks in the establishment wing of the party were disconnected with what’s happening back home,” he said.

Rep. Tim Huelskamp (R-Kan.), a member of the conservative Freedom Caucus, argued that the shift in focus on the campaign trail from candidates like former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush -- who shares the name of two of the last four presidents -- to  a TV entertainer, former Hewlett-Packard CEO, and former neurosurgeon, is a sign of where the party needs to head.

Bill Clark via Getty Images

"If you look at the Republican primary -- and the Democrat primary -- if you're tied to Washington, you're not doing well,” Huelskamp said. "I think this is a great opportunity to set us up, not just in the House, not just dealing with President Obama, but how do we want to race in 2016.”

Huelskamp suggested picking Boehner's replacement is the starting point. Get a speaker “who actually has lived and can articulate conservative principles of the Republican Party” and “that's going to be the pathway to victory in 2016.”

The importance of the conservative electorate arguably goes back to 2013, when Cruz, then a little-known junior Texas senator, raised his national profile dramatically by playing a key role in sparking a government shutdown. Since, he’s been praised by the far right of the party for standing up to Senate leadership. And he has fed that fervor by going so far as to call Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) a “liar” on the Senate floor. 

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), one of the targets of such outsiders a few months ago, and known for tiffs with Cruz, didn’t outright say he thinks 2016 politics is the reason conservatives are vying for another shutdown fight. But he offered an ear-to-ear grin and laugh that spoke clearly.

“That has nothing to do with what goes on of the floor of the Senate,” McCain chuckled, when asked if the language coming from the Republican presidential candidates played a role.

“I think they’re completely divorced from each other," McCain added. "I think the senators who are running for president -- it wouldn’t cross their mind to use the floor of the Senate as a vehicle to enhance their chances.” He was barely able to finish the sentence without laughing.

Pressed on recent comments by Chris Christie, the New Jersey governor and GOP presidential candidate, that the Senate should go nuclear and break procedural rules to pass a more conservative agenda, McCain threw up his hands, saying he’s not sure what conservatives think they’d accomplish.

“Tell me what you do when the president vetoes, after we go to 51 votes, and become just like the House of Representatives. What are we going to do?” McCain said. “Assassinate the president? No. No, I retract that. Or maybe, pass a constitutional amendment that changes the Constitution so that the president’s veto can be overridden with 51 votes?” 

That disagreement over how to accomplish shared goals among Republicans was on full display Friday after Boehner announced his resignation. Conservative members called it “victory.” The establishment exited the room where Boehner broke the news looking teary-eyed and upset.

Democrats -- many of whom praised Boehner for at least trying to make Congress work -- saw his departure as evidence that frightened, apocalyptic rhetoric of the campaign trail was already winning in Washington.

"I think that it is absolutely connected. It's an indication of the deep, deep, deep divisions in the Republican Party and a faction, which obviously is a large faction within their party, that is not as interested in governing as they are in dividing the country, dividing their party and taking some of the most strident position on issues that drive the country apart," said House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.).

Bill Clark via Getty Images

“We see this in the presidential primary, and debates," Hoyer said. "They're much more comfortable in attacking than they are in constructively engaging.”

Across town, another presidential candidate, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, offered fresh fodder for critics like Hoyer.

You have some people who are just focused on making the trains run and getting things done as opposed to standing up for the that things we need to fight for,” Santorum said. “And look beyond running the organization and look at what the greater purpose is and why you’re there.”

Trump, too, told reporters at the Values Voter Summit that Boehner didn’t fight enough for conservative principles. “I think it’s time. I think it’s a good thing and I think it’s time,” Trump said. "Somebody else will come in and maybe they’ll have a little bit tougher attitude.”

Boehner's departure may ironically defuse the right wing's current attempt to use a government shutdown to defund Planned Parenthood, since the outgoing speaker will be free to act as he sees fit, without fear of repercussions.

But that only lasts until Oct. 30. 

Elise Foley contributed reporting.

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