House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., had hoped that the first Republican-controlled Congress in eight years would get off to a smooth start with party unity and no drama.
But an embarrassing vote over Boehner’s House speakership, differences between House of Representatives and Senate Republicans over the gas tax, angst over immigration policy and continued questions about House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, R-La., speaking to a group of white supremacists as a state legislator more than a decade ago have produced anything but smooth sailing.
“You have to realize you’re in charge,” Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., said of the Republicans in Congress. “Now controlling the House and the Senate, we have an obligation to act like adults. They don’t realize what it means to be in the majority.”
Lawmakers are looking to right themselves at a two-day retreat starting Thursday in Hershey, Pa., billed as the “ Sweetest Place on Earth.”
Between entertainment by comedian Jay Leno and talks by former British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Aspen Institute President Walter Isaacson, congressional Republicans will try to heal wounds, recalibrate their expectations and find areas of agreement moving forward.
“It’s a way to help the House and the Senate to coordinate and make sure we’re all working together,” said Michael Steel, a spokesman for Boehner. “The goal is to do it to the extent possible. We share the same goal, which is to make sure we put as much good, conservative public policy on the president’s desk as possible.”
That might not be easy. The party unity that Republican leaders had hoped for within the individual chambers and between them has been elusive.
Take immigration. On a 236-191 vote, House Republicans powered through a bill Wednesday to keep the Department of Homeland Security open after money runs out at the end of February, but with amendments attached to roll back several of President Barack Obama’s immigration actions.
While conservative Republicans celebrated the vote, several Republican freshmen and centrists balked. Twenty-six of them voted against an amendment to defund the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which protects many young immigrants who were brought into the country by their parents.
The Homeland Security-immigration bill now moves to the Senate, where several Republicans have expressed reservations about linking Homeland Security funding to immigration policy, despite their anger over Obama’s executive actions.
“To my Republican colleagues, we’re playing with fire here,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said Monday on CNN. “We need a robust Homeland Security budget now.”
House and Senate Republicans also appear split when it comes to increasing the gas tax to help pay for federal infrastructure projects. Last week, Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., proposed raising the tax by 6 cents over two years and indexing it to inflation.
Three other Republican senators – Orrin Hatch of Utah, James Inhofe of Oklahoma and John Thune of South Dakota – expressed openness to exploring a gas-tax hike.
But Boehner is dubious.
“It’s doubtful the votes are here to raise the gas tax again,” he said. “I’ve never voted to raise the gas tax. We’ll have to work our way through it.”
Thomas Mann, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, said the divisions were a reflection of a party trying to adjust to governing.
“There are two Republican parties, divided less by ideological differences than by strategy and tactics,” he said. “The House is still dealing in the realm of certain strategic, symbolic position-taking and not really in the business of legislating.”
Strategy leading to legislation is what Rep. Tim Huelskamp, R-Kan., a frequent critic of the House leadership, wants to hear in Hershey.
“We’ve been spending four years on Obamacare – Republicans promise to do something, then we don’t,” he said “For four years they say they can’t do anything. Now we can. The question is their true commitment to keeping their campaign promise. Leadership, tell us what your strategy is. That’s what I’ll be listening for.”
Some of the divides have gotten downright nasty. Some House Republicans are weighing bolting from the Republican Study Committee, a policy group, to form their own invitation-only group of conservatives committed to moving Boehner more to the political right on issues, the National Journal first reported.
And Boehner loyalists are still seething over Republicans who voted for someone other than him for speaker, and they think the rebels should be punished.
“I don’t have any sympathy for the guys who voted against Boehner,” New York Rep. King said. “To me, to be voting against the speaker to make a statement shows a lack of maturity.”
Rep. Rich Nugent, R-Fla., said he had no regrets for rebelling against Boehner, despite losing his seat on the House Rules Committee for his action.
“I can respect the man and certainly the office he holds, but I would be lying if I said I respected his leadership. He simply hasn’t earned it,” Nugent wrote in a letter to constituents that was published online by The Tampa Bay Times.
King suggested that the squabbles and disagreements among Republicans were a period of “growing pains.”
“Hopefully it will end soon,” he said.