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Milbank: Blindsiding the GOP base

Legendary football coach Lou Holtz gives motivational lectures about “overcoming seemingly impossible challenges,” according to his page on the Washington Speakers Bureau website.

So it would seem that Holtz found an ideal client for his services: He was scheduled to deliver a keynote address Wednesday night to the House Republican Conference, meeting in Cambridge, Md.

The retired Notre Dame coach, whose bio says he has a “sterling reputation for turning pretenders into contenders,” had his work cut out for him with this GOP squad. The night before, Republicans sat in the House chamber and listened to President Barack Obama inform them in his State of the Union address that, because they had refused to work with him, he would find ways to govern without them. Then, after no fewer than four Republicans gave televised responses to the president's speech, a more memorable (if unplanned) response came from Rep. Michael Grimm, R-N.Y., who threatened to break a reporter in half and throw him off the (expletive) balcony of the Cannon House Office Building rotunda for asking unwanted questions.

Grimm apologized Wednesday morning for his unsportsmanlike conduct.

The larger problem for Republicans is a series of losses on key issues for the party's conservative fan base. First, GOP lawmakers ignored complaints from conservative groups when they passed a 2014 appropriations bill this month that raised spending above previously set levels. Then, before leaving town Wednesday morning for their private retreat on Maryland's Eastern Shore, they passed a compromise farm bill that abandoned conservatives’ effort to make deep cuts in food stamps. Now come reports that the Republicans will abandon plans to fight over the next debt-limit increase. In addition, House GOP leaders will reportedly outline immigration legislation at the retreat that includes a path to legal status for illegal immigrants.

These developments are good news for House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, who has been struggling for three years to corral his caucus. And they are good news for the country because they hint at the possibility that Washington is beginning to function again. But it’s a delicate spot to be in for Republican lawmakers because the conservative activists who brought them to power — and who still dominate the party's grass roots — feel betrayed.

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