Capital Beat: Former speaker rallies caucus against House budget

  • Former House speaker William O’Brien listens to testimony before a legislative committee in 2011. AP file

Monitor staff
Saturday, April 08, 2017

He’s back.

Bill O’Brien lost the speaker’s race last session and didn’t run for re-election in 2016, but the conservative can’t seem to stay away from House politics.

He had meetings with conservatives and the newfound House Freedom Caucus last week as its members helped crash the state budget put forward by Republican leaders. And O’Brien’s telling them not to give up the fight.

“If you ignore the threats, warnings and ultimatums, and if you stand together and tough, you will prevail,” O’Brien said to the group in an email hours before the budget failed. “They have to deal with you this week or they have to deal with you in June when the time comes to vote on the Senate budget and finally the committee of conference report.”

O’Brien’s participation is not political payback against former his rival, Speaker Shawn Jasper, he said. He was asked for advice by representatives concerned about the $11.9 billion budget.

“I inadvertently got involved,” O’Brien said.

The chamber did not pass a budget, marking the first time it failed to do so in at least five decades. The loss dealt a big blow to Jasper, and reveals lingering fractures in the party that last came to a head when O’Brien lost the speaker’s race.

After the defeat in 2014, O’Brien and others formed a splinter House Republican caucus that was often at odds with Jasper. The group set up an office a few blocks away from the State House and staked a claim as the chamber’s true conservatives. But the caucus was evicted from the Concord office last year amid allegations of unpaid rent, and O’Brien decided not to run for re-election, leaving questions about who would pick up the torch.

The House Freedom Caucus has now emerged, though its leadership and lasting power are still unclear. The group is modeled off the eponymous caucus in Washington that toppled health care reform.

A new website says the group is “A Voice for Liberty and Conservatism in the NH House of Representatives.”

In a meeting at Americans for Prosperity’s Manchester office last week, O’Brien urged representatives to come up with a “yes position” on the budget because they “can’t just be saying no,” he said.

On the day of the vote, House conservatives complained the GOP leadership budget spent far too much and should match the three percent rate of inflation. An amendment put forward by Republican Rep. Keith Ammon would have directed Republican Gov. Chris Sununu to cut state spending by $200 million, but didn’t specify particular programs or departments.

After the budget’s failure, both sides cast blame on each other and accused the other of failing to compromise.

Dunbarton Rep. JR Hoell, one of the leaders of the Freedom Caucus, said the group approached Jasper’s team with proposals. “It’s unfortunate we weren’t given a chance to work out a solution,” he said.

But in harsh words, Jasper accused opponents of only having concern with numbers, not people.

“This is a movement of people who I think are totally disconnected with their constituents, totally disconnected from the facts,” he said, refuting claims that GOP opponents had come forward with a plan. “They don’t care about the issues, they only cared about the numbers. That is not a principle… that is just short-sightedness at its worst.”

Whether Jasper likes it or not, he will have to work with this group to get GOP policies passed, if he doesn’t want Democrats’ help. Republicans hold only a narrow, 22-seat majority in the House. While it’s not clear exactly the size of the House Freedom Caucus, somewhere between 30 to 60 members rejected the budget over two days last week.

The spending plan will now go to the state Senate, where leaders have said they will revise Sununu’s initial $12.1 billion spending proposal. The next test will come around summertime, when it will again be the House’s turn to vote on the budget.

(Allie Morris can be reached at 369-3307 or amorris@cmonitor.com.)