Why you should care

Government shutdowns seem to be in the rearview mirror … for now.

Marching down the hall of the Senate basement, trailed by a phalanx of reporters, potential presidential contender Sen. Lindsey Graham was holding forth. “I don’t think it’s conservatism, I think it’s just dumb,” he said, referring to fierce lobbying against the U.S. Export-Import Bank. “This is, I think, an issue created by ideological groups.”

The targets of the Republican senator’s grousing? They’re all in his own party.

Attention GOP-watchers: The ongoing feud between “establishment” Republicans and “activist” has entered a new phase, one in which the moderates seem newly empowered. Of course, hard-right Republicans are still fighting everything from the Ex-Im Bank to raising the debt ceiling (again). But where they once had the rest of the party fumbling, Republican centrists don’t look quite so scared of them these days. In fact, in recent debates, they’ve had the upper hand. The coming months will test whether they can keep that momentum going — and will be a good indicator of just how much this Republican Congress can accomplish over the next year and a half.

The string of centrist hits — mind you, they would prefer to be known as the party’s “governing wing” — started with passing legislation to fund the Department of Homeland Security through the end of the year. Remember that kerfuffle? Republicans had held the DHS bill hostage over President Barack Obama’s executive action last November allowing more immigrants in the country illegally to stay. Just before the deadline in March, the House passed a bill to fund ita sign that House Speaker John Boehner wasn’t interested in kowtowing to those in the party who were willing to shut down part of the government. Since then, the Republican-led Congress has been able to pass a budget and a bill to address a thorny, long-running Medicare payment issue by wide margins.

And the moderates aren’t just successfully legislating, they’re also standing up to conservative factions, using some of the same tactics that the ultra-right used to cow them in the past. In February, the outside group American Action Network, which supports pro-business Republicans, ran television ads pressuring conservatives to vote to fund the Department of Homeland Security. Then it spent several hundreds of thousands dollars more on ads thanking those who did. The Mainstreet Partnership PAC, which counts 68 pro-business House and Senate Republican members, ran thank-you ads, too, and has budgeted for more, says Sarah Chamberlain, the PAC’s chief operating officer: “If they go out on a limb,” Chamberlain says of her members, “we want to make sure they get the support that’s needed.” Even Boehner has taken to playing more hardball, blocking dissident Republicans from taking congressionally funded trips and booting them off prime committees.

One impetus for all this is that establishment Republicans want to prove they can actually govern, and not just oppose. Government shutdowns, like the one in the fall of 2013, didn’t do much for the tea party’s popularity. And moderates these days are better positioned to govern, Chamberlain argues. Members of her group went 11 for 11 in primary contests where they were challenged from the right. “That was really psychologically important for us,” she says.

To be sure, moderate groups still have nowhere near the sway, nor the cash that Heritage Action and other anti-spending groups like the Club for Growth have to spend on lobbying and advertising. They’re “playing a lot of catch up, still,” says one GOP lobbyist who worked for a moderate member of Congress until recently. But those conservative groups aren’t driving the bus quite the way they once were. “For a period, they really ran our agenda,” the lobbyist says.

Politicians, of course, insist that outside groups don’t affect their votes. But one aide to a centrist House Republican said it was reassuring to see more moderate outside groups piping up to shape the political narrative in Congress. There are “different voices championing issues, more than just the far right,” the aide says.

They’ll have their work cut out for them in the weeks and months ahead, with the U.S. government’s Highway Trust Fund, which provides federal money for highways and other infrastructure projects, expiring at the end of the month. There’s still little consensus of whether and how to keep the fund operating. Even in the Mainstreet PAC, “members are all over on the funding options,” says Chamberlain. Same goes for an extension of Section 215 of the Patriot Act, the law that has allowed the NSA’s bulk collection of phone records. A coalition of lefty civil liberties groups and right-leaning libertarians want to pass a new bill to end that kind of data gathering.

And it’s not like hard-line conservatives are just going to roll over. The Club for Growth has started running ads targeting fence-sitters over the Export-Import Bank vote. And Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan, a leading conservative voice, recently argued that shutting down the bank should be easy, given support from leading Republicans and outside groups. Asked Jordan: “If we can’t do that much, then, for goodness’ sake, what good are we?” We’ll know in a few weeks.

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