By David Lawder
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner's purge of some dissident Republican congressmen from key committees may continue as he seeks to tighten control over his unruly caucus ahead of difficult votes on "fiscal cliff" issues.
House Republican lawmakers said on Wednesday that in addition to the four conservatives who were stripped of their committee assignments earlier this week, other unnamed lawmakers were warned that their votes need to be more in line with party leadership and committee chairmen.
In effect, these congressmen are not "team players" working constructively with committee colleagues and leadership, Representative Pat Tiberi, a close Republican ally of Boehner from his home state of Ohio, told Reuters. Gone are the days when a lawmaker could expect "to stay on a committee forever," Tiberi said.
"This is not golf. This is baseball. You're part of a team," he added.
The move after a November election in which Republicans ceded seats but maintained a majority, signals a stronger hand from Boehner, who took the speaker's gavel two years ago and has repeatedly struggled to get his caucus behind him.
It's too soon to tell if the discharges are a temporary, tactical move by Republican leadership to get a deficit reduction deal passed or a more fundamental shift that reflects the waning influence of the more extreme Tea Party movement, which lost several vocal members in November's elections.
Regardless, the threat of further committee reassignments could make House Republicans think twice about breaking party ranks to vote against any deal that Boehner forges with President Barack Obama to avoid the year-end $600 billion fiscal cliff of automatic tax hikes and spending cuts.
Boehner has already offered revenue increases as part of a replacement plan, which conservatives have denounced as a tax hike that they have pledged to avoid. Obama is holding firm on raising tax rates on the wealthiest Americans, and persuading a majority of Republicans to back such a deal would be difficult at best.
"The message was that there may be more punishment coming. We are watching your votes," said Representative Tim Huelskamp, a Republican from Kansas who lost his assignments on the House Budget and Agriculture committees.
While Boehner has struggled over the past two years with Tea Party-backed freshmen opposing his most important fiscal initiatives, he now needs to also closely watch the party's more moderate wing.
A number of lawmakers in recent days have voiced agreement with Representative Tom Cole's recommendation that Republicans give in to Obama's demands to let the top two tax rates rise in order to gain more leverage over other areas of the fiscal cliff, including cuts to government health care programs.
Boehner and other House Republican leaders have not spoken publicly about the decisions, which lawmakers say were made by the House Republican Steering Committee in a closed-door hearing.
In fact, Representative Justin Amash, who according to Republican aides lost his Budget committee seat, said on his Facebook page that he has not received "a single call, email or text from Republican leadership" regarding the decision.
"I look forward to hearing from my party's leadership why my principled, conservative voting record offends them. That's sure to be a lively and entertaining conversation," wrote Amash, a congressman from Michigan who is among those who has voted against Boehner most often.
Conservative lawmakers, bloggers and pundits denounced the purge as an attack on their values and independence. Even conservative Tea Party icon Sarah Palin jumped into the criticism on her Facebook page, telling Republican leaders, "don't go wobbly on us."
"We send good conservatives to D.C. to fulfill the promises they made to the electorate, and yet when they stay true to their word the permanent political class in their own party punishes them," Palin wrote. "This won't be forgotten come 2014."
The reassignments were hardly aimed at conservatives, however, as many of the House's most hardline anti-tax members kept their posts, including Budget Committee Chairman and former vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan.
But Huelskamp and Amash, both starting second terms in January, were the only Republicans to vote in the Budget Committee against Ryan's budget plan earlier this year, saying it did not cut spending deeply enough. On the House floor, they both voted against the debt limit deal, extending a payroll tax break and a stopgap measure to keep the government funded into March 2013.
Also removed from the House Financial Services Committee were Walter Jones from North Carolina, a longtime dissident who has voted against Boehner more than any Republican, as well as David Schweikert of Arizona.
A Boehner spokesman, Michael Steel, declined to provide any further detail on the decision, saying only, "The Steering Committee makes decisions on a variety of factors."
The effort to boost committee effectiveness, however, could backfire on Boehner by making some members more defiant as they try to safeguard the interests of their constituents.
Voting with leadership, particularly on a fiscal cliff deal that raises taxes, would go against the wishes of voters in many conservatives' districts, said Representative Trent Franks of Arizona.
"When we punish people for voting their conscience, when the votes are in line with the Republican platform, we weaken our caucus," Franks said.
Jones, who said he expects to keep his senior post on the House Armed Services Committee, said that "intimidation" would not work on him, because he will not defy his constituents.
"They say, we put you there, we helped you get a voting card and we want you to remember we the people, not we the leadership," he said.
Amash was equally defiant, again via Facebook: "If they think kicking me off of a committee will lead me to abandon my principles or stifle my bipartisan work toward a balanced budget, I have a message for them: You're dead wrong."
(Additional reporting by Thomas Ferraro; Editing by Karey Wutkowski and Lisa Shumaker)