- The Washington Times - Monday, March 3, 2014

House Speaker John A. Boehner, who has tangled repeatedly with the right wing of the Republican Party, has not been invited to this week’s Conservative Political Action Conference, a major snub at the annual gathering and a sign of the top Republican officeholder’s struggle to find common ground with grass-roots activists.

People familiar with CPAC’s planning, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity, said the American Conservative Union, which hosts the event, never sent an invitation to Mr. Boehner, in part because it wanted the focus this year to be on leading conservative thinkers at the grass-roots level and not at the congressional or party leadership level.

Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus, who addressed the conference last year, was not asked to give his own speech, but rather to serve on one of the conference’s panels.

“We wanted this to be about conservatives, not party leaders in Washington,” one source said.

Despite that, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican who has fallen out of favor with some grass-roots conservatives and faces a tea party-backed challenger in the party primary this year, will address the conference, his office said.

Mr. Boehner, Ohio Republican, used to be a regular at CPAC, but the three-day gathering that begins Thursday will mark the second in a row that he has missed after passing up an invitation last year. The speaker has grown increasingly vocal in recent months about his frustration with tea party members of the House Republican caucus who have broken with leadership on key votes.

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The antipathy is mutual.

“There are not enough curse words in the English language to describe how movement conservatives think of John Boehner,” said Ford O’Connell, a party strategist. “They see him as only slightly better than President Obama.

“But, I think, John Boehner is wise not to attend CPAC because he does not want to become a distraction, and fodder for the news media, by highlighting the rift between establishment conservatives and the movement conservatives,” Mr. O’Connell said. “Movement conservatives are right to question Boehner’s moves, but what they can’t question is his heart in terms of him wanting to maximize electoral returns in the 2014 midterms.”

The speakers lineup at the annual gathering is always a good test for who’s in and who’s out with conservative leaders.

Last year, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie was left off the list just weeks after he battled congressional Republicans, demanding that they approve emergency federal aid for Superstorm Sandy that would add tens of billions of dollars to the deficit.

Mr. Christie is back on this year’s list, alongside other possible 2016 GOP presidential candidates, including Sens. Rand Paul of Kentucky and Ted Cruz of Texas, as well as Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan and former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania.

Mr. Boehner’s office refused to say whether the speaker was offered a slot.

“The speaker will be on the road next weekend for House Republicans,” said Cory Fritz, Mr. Boehner’s political spokesman. “Our office does not comment on invites or requests.”

Meanwhile, Kirsten Kukowski, a spokeswoman for the RNC, said Mr. Priebus was asked to take part on a panel that will explore how to break the political clout of unions in the states because of the experience he gained fighting them in his home state of Wisconsin.

“He was excited and thought it was the best opportunity for him to address the grassroots on an important subject,” Ms. Kukowski said.

Mr. Boehner, who holds a 87 percent lifetime conservative rating with the American Conservative Union, used his CPAC speech four years ago to talk about the GOP relationship with the emerging tea party movement and praised it as an engine that could drive Republicans.

“The Republican Party should not attempt to co-opt the tea parties,” Mr. Boehner said at CPAC 2010, after being introduced to a standing ovation. “I think that is the dumbest thing. What we will do as long as I am leader is respect them, listen to them and walk amongst them.”

Since then, though, the relationship has been rocky, in part reflecting Mr. Boehner’s conflicting duties as a top GOP figure and the man who must maintain operations on Capitol Hill.

After some spending and debt fights led to GOP victories, Mr. Boehner and his lieutenants have increasingly locked horns with his party’s right flank over the best tactics for advancing conservative policy goals.

A battle last fall over whether to tie a spending deal to a fight over defunding Obamacare ended up in a government shutdown. Although polls showed the Republican Party’s image was tarnished, Mr. Cruz — who pushed to link Obamacare and the spending bills — has become more popular among grass-roots conservatives.

Mr. Boehner’s frustration with limited-government groups — including Heritage Action and the Club for Growth — boiled over at a December press conference, where he said those attacking the bipartisan budget deal that Rep. Paul Ryan, Wisconsin Republican, negotiated had “lost all credibility.”

Last month, tea partyers slammed Mr. Boehner for giving in to Democrats’ demands for an unconditional increase in the federal debt ceiling. Tea party Republicans refused to sign off on any deal. The speaker was forced to turn to Democrats for the votes to pass the borrowing increase that President Obama wanted.

Tea partyers now are looking to remove Mr. Boehner from the top House job.

Tea Party Patriots, led by CPAC speaker Jenny Beth Martin, started a “Fire the Speaker” petition that has almost 93,000 signatures.

The Tea Party Leadership Fund announced last week that it is backing a high school teacher, J.D. Winteregg, against Mr. Boehner in Ohio’s May 6 primary election.

Mike McKenna, a Republican Party strategist, said Mr. Boehner’s opponents should be careful what they wish for.

“In about two years, folks on the right are going to be complaining about whoever the next speaker is and remembering Boehner fondly,” Mr. McKenna said. “They are angry at the world. For some reason, they have focused some of this anger at Boehner. I have no clue why.”

• Seth McLaughlin can be reached at smclaughlin@washingtontimes.com.

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