House Speaker John Boehner candidly summed up the other day how the first month of the Republican-controlled 114th Congress has gone.
“Yes, there have been a couple of stumbles,” Boehner, R-Ohio, told reporters.
When Republicans assumed the gavel in both chambers of Congress for the first time in eight years as a result of their election victories in November, they came in with a game plan:
Offer legislation that draws contrasts between them and President Barack Obama; score victories passing bipartisan bills that Obama would have to grudgingly accept or veto; and, to paraphrase Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., not be “scary” and frighten voters away from choosing a Republican for the White House in 2016.
But a series of self-inflicted missteps has set the game plan off-script in the first month.
“The Hill is very polarized, and this is the beginning of a difficult two years,” said Nathan Gonzales, editor and publisher of the Rothenberg & Gonzales Political Report. “Republicans have to get on the same page as a party before considering what’s going to work across the aisle.”
And as the 2016 presidential race draws closer, political common ground will become even harder to find.
Getting there has proven difficult. This week, Republican leaders in the House of Representatives pulled a controversial border security bill from consideration, claiming the snowstorm that crippled parts of the Northeast and a truncated congressional workweek made it impossible to hold a vote on it. So far there’s no effort to reschedule.
Conservative Republicans and Democrats who opposed the measure said the weather was a convenient excuse to shelve a bill that was in danger of failing on the House floor.
Last week, Boehner’s leadership team had to yank another GOP-sponsored bill; this time one that would ban most abortions after a 20-week pregnancy. Some Republicans complained that its rape reporting requirements exposed a rift between the party’s moderate and conservative wings, even though some very staunch conservatives and opponents of abortion were among the bill’s critics.
Even on the new Congress’ first day, Boehner had to weather a rebellion when 25 mostly conservative Republicans voted for someone other than him to be House speaker.
“Week One, we had the vote for speaker. Week Two, we debated deporting children. Week Three, we’re debating rape and incest,” Rep. Charlie Dent, R-Pa., a moderate, complained during the abortion debate. “I just can’t wait for Week Four.”
The apparent rise of the moderate House Republicans has riled conservative and tea party-leaning members of the chamber.
“From the internal perspective where ‘conservatives are always making it tough for leadership,’ I think you’re going to see again and again it’s going to be moderate and liberal Republicans who are going to make it difficult to move forward on what the party agrees on,” said Rep. Tim Huelskamp, R-Kan. “The heart of the Republican Party is conservatives. Liberals are in the other party.”
Even as Republican unity within the House seems elusive, party solidarity between the House and Senate on major issues could be equally challenging.
House and Senate Republicans – who envisioned greater cooperation now that Democrats don’t run the upper chamber – are squabbling over immigration after the House passed a bill that would fully fund the Department of Homeland Security through September. The legislation also would reverse several of the president’s executive actions on immigration, which shielded more than 4 million people from deportation.
Facing a Feb. 27 deadline before the Homeland Security budget runs dry, Republican senators are struggling over how to fund the department and keep conservatives in the party happy by attacking Obama’s solo moves, which they have decried as unconstitutional.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who supports a comprehensive overhaul of the nation’s immigration laws and disapproves of Obama’s executive actions, said, “I don’t know, honest to God, how this movie ends.”
Congressional Democrats have enjoyed watching the new majority struggle. But the new minority has had its share of struggles, too. Several rank-and-file House Democrats have been grumbling about a lack of a message under House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi’s leadership.
There’s also infighting over talk of the party changing its seniority system and implementing term limits for committee posts. But it’s a discussion that several African-American House members complain is happening just when some have achieved enough seniority for those coveted positions.
“Being consistently in the minority can cause friction,” Gonzales said. “When you’re in the minority, the question is, ‘What’s the way out?’ If Democrats don’t make significant gains in 2016, you’ll see increased tension in the Democratic caucus.”
Meanwhile, congressional Republicans have scored some successes in the new Congress. The House quickly moved a bill authorizing the Keystone XL pipeline and, after three weeks of debate extended by a stream of Democratic amendments, the Senate approve the bill Thursday. Obama has vowed to veto the measure.
The Keystone debate was a test drive for McConnell’s goal of presiding over a freewheeling Senate, where lawmakers from both parties can submit amendments to bills.
Despite an evening when McConnell killed some of the Democratic offerings, senators voted on more than 38 amendments altogether, surpassing the 15 such votes held in 2014.
“Several Democratic senators complained the other day about what they said was a lack of amendment votes on this bill,” said Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo. “Where were they last year when the Democrat leadership allowed only 15 amendments to get an up-and-down vote for an entire year?”
Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., the majority leader in the 113th Congress, was unimpressed.
“The success of a Congress is not determined on how many amendments people vote on,” Reid told reporters recently.
Still, Patrick Griffin, an adjunct lecturer at American University’s Department of Government and a former secretary to Senate Democrats, said, “I think to the extent that Keystone is an example, you have to give (McConnell) credit for an honest effort to try to do regular order.”
But Bruce Oppenheimer, a Vanderbilt University public policy professor, wonders whether McConnell will be inclined to continue the freewheeling approach as the Senate session wears on and the bills become more contentious.
“Let me know how things do in the last 100 days and how the majority party reacts to excessive floor amendments,” Oppenheimer said. “Early on, you may be dealing with low-hanging fruit, there’s less time pressure, and therefore the majority leadership can be more generous with floor time.”
But Gonzales of the Rothenberg & Gonzales Report countered: “I don’t think there’s any such thing as low-hanging fruit in Congress anymore.”