WASHINGTON -- After years of placating conservative groups that repeatedly undermined his agenda, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, took direct aim at some of his Tea Party critics Thursday, accusing them of working against the interests of the Republican Party.
Calling the groups "misleading" and without "credibility," Mr. Boehner pointed to the string of bipartisan deals that passed the House on its last legislative day of 2013 as the sort of "common ground" that should provide a new path for congressional work.
The House voted 332-94 Thursday night to approve a two-year budget outline that would reduce the chance of another government shutdown and end the cycle of crisis budgeting that has been the scourge of Washington for much of the past three years.
The budget approval was the most prominent accomplishment of a day on which the usually moribund House also passed legislation that would extend the farm bill through January and approved the annual policy bill for the Pentagon. That collection of legislation will head next week to the Senate, where the budget pact will have to steer a narrow path to victory through concern from GOP defense hawks who oppose a bill provision that would reduce military pension benefits.
With his assault on outside groups that have opposed him time and again over the past three years, Mr. Boehner gave voice to a growing feeling among congressional Republicans that their nominal allies at advocacy groups and think tanks have turned into puritanical partisans, whose posture on many issues has undermined the GOP's standing on Capitol Hill.
Mr. Boehner's remarks came amid increasingly strident clashes between establishment Republicans and Washington-based groups that claim the Tea Party banner, most prominently Heritage Action for America, the Club for Growth and FreedomWorks. The 16-day federal government shutdown in October, largely orchestrated by groups such as Heritage Action, became a pivot point for many longtime GOP lawmakers to begin pushing back against more conservative newcomers.
The turning point for Mr. Boehner -- who acknowledged feeling this way for several years -- was an effort to sabotage the bipartisan budget deal crafted by House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and Senate Budget Committee chairwoman Patty Murray, D-Wash.
Mr. Ryan, the Republicans' 2012 vice-presidential nominee, still engenders much respect in all ideological corners of the GOP caucus, and his plan won plaudits from senior Republicans for establishing a two-year framework that many hope will provide evidence that the House GOP is able and willing to govern.
But those outside groups attacked Mr. Ryan for allowing an additional $63 billion in agency spending over the next two years in exchange for savings that come over the next decade.
"Frankly, I think they're misleading their followers," Mr. Boehner told reporters at his weekly news briefing. "I think they're pushing our members in places where they don't want to be. And frankly, I just think that they've lost all credibility."
Hours later, Mr. Ryan's deal won a majority of House Republican votes -- 169 for, 62 against -- unlike every other bipartisan fiscal pact in 2013, most drawing barely a third of the GOP caucus.
This week's clash over the Murray-Ryan budget served as the first big policy contest inside the fractured House Republican Conference since the shutdown. Some conservatives recoiled at both Mr. Ryan's proposal and Mr. Boehner's critique of the outside groups, with the central complaint focusing on increased funding for federal agencies above certain limits that were part of a 2011 budget deal.
"The more information that gets out about this deal, the harder it is for members to vote yes and go back home and explain that vote," said Heritage Action spokesman Dan Holler. He warned that Mr. Boehner will risk the House's Republican majority if conservative voters "are not going to motivate to turn out in November 2014." He described the speaker's message to conservative voters as "We use you guys to get elected."
One of Heritage's staunchest allies, Rep. Tim Huelskamp, R-Kan., said he thinks Mr. Boehner's moment of candor was prompted by the belief among some Republicans that he will not run for speaker next term.
Mr. Boehner has said he intends to remain speaker and filed Monday to run for re-election next year in his southwest Ohio district.
The more prominent view among House Republicans was that Mr. Ryan's deal with Ms. Murray, while disappointing with just $23 billion in deficit reduction, would make another government shutdown highly unlikely and signals that House Republicans are trying to move beyond the past three years of fiscal brinkmanship that they have engaged in with the Obama White House.
Mr. Boehner turned his normally staid weekly news briefing into a moment of political theater unmatched in his speakership.
On Wednesday, Mr. Boehner issued a brief aside, accusing Heritage Action and others of "using" less-experienced GOP lawmakers. On Thursday, he offered a more expansive critique, acknowledging he felt pushed.
"It's just that, you know, there just comes a point when some people step over the line," he said. "You know, when you criticize something, and you have no idea what you're criticizing, it undermines your credibility." Then he smiled and added, "Have a merry Christmas."