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The Boston Globe

Opinion

SCOT LEHIGH

The GOP vs. the right

Boehner throws down the gauntlet in budget deal

“I think they are misleading their followers,” House Speaker John Boehner said of right-wing advocacy groups.

AP/file

“I think they are misleading their followers,” House Speaker John Boehner said of right-wing advocacy groups.

It was the shot heard ’round the conservative world.

Last week, in defending the new, bipartisan budget agreement, House Speaker John Boehner took aim at the right-wing advocacy groups that vehemently opposed the deal.

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His language wasn’t just blunt. It was shockingly sharp for an exchange between supposed ideological allies. First, he called their opposition “ridiculous,” charging they were “using the American people for their own goals.”

And then he upped the ante.

“I think they are misleading their followers,” Boehner added a day later. “Frankly, I think they’ve lost all credibility.”

This is as open a fissure among conservatives as we’ve seen in Tea Party times.

Boehner’s blast across the bow seems unlikely to deter the conservative advocacy organizations. Take, for example, FreedomWorks, the opportunistic Tea Party latch-on group that funnels large donations from rich libertarians into supposed grass-roots activity and electoral pressure to promote lower taxes, less government, and more individual choice. Matt Kibbe, the president and CEO of FreedomWorks, seems to relish the conflict as a way to regain relevance for his group, which has been rocked by internal strife and financial problems.

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“I think this is a civil war, and I think it’s a fight we have to fight right now,” he said on the Glenn Beck Program.

Nor is it likely to cow the Club for Growth, which has long targeted GOP incumbents viewed as insufficiently committed to the club’s favored agenda of lower taxes and less spending. “We view our role as to push the Republican Party to pass pro-growth economic policy,” said spokesman Barney Keller. “When they do fiscally conservative policy, we are going to be on the same side.”

But this open conflict does create a considerable dilemma for the Heritage Foundation. In his counterattack last week, Boehner took particular aim at one of Heritage’s top guns. Noting that the outside groups had pushed the House into shutting down the government as a way to defund Obamacare, he said: “The day before the government reopened, one of the people at one of these groups stood up and said, ‘Well, we never really thought it would work.’ ” Then, a look of exasperated incredulity transforming his face, Boehner fairly shouted: “Are you kidding me?”

That was an obvious jab at Michael Needham, who heads Heritage Action, the foundation’s relatively new (2010) advocacy arm. Heritage itself has been an integral part of the conservative constellation since the Reagan administration. The large, multifaceted think tank has enjoyed access to and clout with Republican policy makers that the other groups can only envy. However, as Heritage has become more overtly political under former South Carolina Tea Party conservative Jim DeMint — who during his days as GOP senator started the Republican-incumbent-challenging Senate Conservatives Fund — those relationships have visibly frayed. Given its long-time policy-making influence, Heritage runs the risk of seeing its brand irreparably harmed by open combat with the Republican speaker.

Heritage professes to be unfazed.

“It’s not going to change anything we do,” insisted Dan Holler, director of communications at Heritage Action.

And yet, interviewed on MSNBC’s “The Daily Rundown,” Needham seemed somewhat taken aback. “We are not trying to have a fight,” he told Chuck Todd. “We are trying to have a fact-based policy disagreement.” Asked if Heritage Action would focus its energies on defeating Boehner or other Republicans who supported the budget deal, Needham said several times that he hoped to turn the focus back to Obamacare.

But regardless of how the right-wing advocacy world reacts, the House vote was an instructive barometer of the prevailing mood among GOP officeholders. Fully 169 Republicans supported the bipartisan budget deal. Only 62 opposed it — and, according to a source close to House leadership, 20 or so of those would have gone the other way if the speaker had needed them.

That tally is noteworthy. No, it can’t be considered a broad vote for bipartisan cooperation. But it was an explicit rejection of the advocacy groups’ demand for ideological purity and a broad recognition that with political power divided, functional government requires compromise. After the dysfunction of the last few months, that’s a start.

Scot Lehigh can be reached at lehigh@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @GlobeScotLehigh.

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