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Conservative Grass Roots Remains Skeptical Of Budget Deal

Peggy Venable, the state director for Americans for Prosperity, wants significant cuts to federal government spending.
David Kidd
Peggy Venable, the state director for Americans for Prosperity, wants significant cuts to federal government spending.

John Boehner has had it with fielding complaints from the right.

The House Speaker's frustration with conservative groups opposing the budget deal boiled over Wednesday, when he delivered an unusually stinging critique, and again the next day.

"Frankly," he told reporters Thursday at a news conference, "I just think they've lost all credibility."

With Boehner, perhaps.

But at the grass-roots level, a Wednesday event held by one of those groups suggested the speaker's view of the budget agreement will still get some pushback.

At a meeting sponsored by the Texas chapter of Americans for Prosperity, a conservative advocacy group, Rebecca Hobbs rolled her eyes and laughed as she contemplated the deal.

"I wish there were cuts involved in it," said Hobbs, a San Antonio Realtor. "Otherwise, I don't know how you manage."

She suggested that members of Congress just wanted to get a deal out of the way, so they could be home in time for Christmas. Later Thursday, the House overwhelmingly passed the bill, by a 332-94 vote. The Senate is expected to follow suit next week.

That skepticism permeated the AFP meeting held just outside San Antonio, beginning with the event's title: "All I Want for Christmas is Less Federal Spending."

To illustrate the problem of excess, Peggy Venable, AFP's state director, showed slides that asked multiple choice and true-or-false questions about federal programs.

It quickly became clear that the correct answer was always the largest dollar amount, whether Venable was talking about caviar marketing, subsidies for Brazilian cotton farmers, the NASA effort to develop recipes for serving pizza on Mars, or money spent flying around President Obama's dog Bo.

The latter case was illustrated with a cartoon of a dog sitting on a throne, draped in a robe and holding a scepter.

"I wonder if the new dog has his own jet," she asked.

Grass-Roots Effort

Along with other conservative groups such as Club for Growth and Heritage Action, AFP opposes the congressional budget deal.

AFP is partially funded by Charles and David Koch, the oil billionaire brothers whose free spending on political issues has angered liberal groups. But it prides itself on being a member organization, so in response to the budget negotiations in Congress, it has been holding a series of town hall events around the country.

Like the other groups, Americans for Prosperity is dismayed that the new legislation would lift spending above the sequester levels set by the Budget Control Act of 2011.

"Our message has been a real simple one," Venable said in an interview. "We want Congress to adhere to the BCA spending levels, and anything above that is unacceptable."

At a news conference Wednesday, Boehner expressed his annoyance at hard-line positions like that, insisting that the budget deal offered deficit reduction over the long haul.

"They're using our members and they're using the American people for their own goals," Boehner said. "This is ridiculous."

Cut Somewhere Else

Philip Krueger, a semi-retired engineer from Heliotes, Texas, said Venable was "preaching to the choir" when it came to outlining wasteful government spending.

Krueger attended AFP's event along with his wife, Judith Newman, who is a pediatric ophthalmologist, and Robert Luedecke, also a physician. All agreed that Washington is spending more than the country can afford.

Nevertheless, their own table talk over plastic cups of water and wine illustrated the difficulty involved in cutting government spending.

The doctors were upset that Medicare reimbursement rates will be slashed by a quarter next month, unless Congress passes its annual "doc fix."

"They fix it every year but can't come up with a reasonable way of planning that," Luedecke said. "No business works that way."

His concern is not so much his own income, he said, but being able to find a doctor who still accepts Medicare patients when he reaches retirement age himself.

When asked whether concern about Medicare payment levels might contradict the desire to see government spending go down, Krueger suggested it would be better to cut food stamps.

"It's great to take care of everybody, but we don't have the money," he said. "Our kids and grandkids will be paying for it for 100 years."

Fit Audience, Though Few

The AFP event in Texas featured a Christmas theme, complete with a Santa Claus ready to pose for pictures, whom the crowd generally seemed too old to be much interested in. About three dozen people showed up.

"I have a concern that there's very few people here," Ruby Casteel, another Realtor, said to Venable during a question and answer session.

Venable said more people had turned out in Amarillo on Monday and that she expected a bigger crowd Friday in Midland. She conceded it's tough to gather people on short notice in December, but praised those in attendance for demonstrating a real interest in the issues at hand.

She urged her San Antonio audience to call members of Congress in opposition to the budget package, and to tweet using the hashtag "noemptypromises." She said that AFP members and "activists" had logged 15,000 calls on Tuesday and Wednesday — 3,000 of which, she noted, came from Texas.

"We know a few people can make a difference," she said, "but more people can make a bigger difference."

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Alan Greenblatt has been covering politics and government in Washington and around the country for 20 years. He came to NPR as a digital reporter in 2010, writing about a wide range of topics, including elections, housing economics, natural disasters and same-sex marriage.