Conservatives face long, maybe impassable, road to big victories

House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California squeezes behind outgoing Speaker John Boehner of Ohio at the start of a news conference Tuesday on Capitol Hill.
House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California squeezes behind outgoing Speaker John Boehner of Ohio at the start of a news conference Tuesday on Capitol Hill. AP

Hardcore Republicans are going to have a hard time getting their way.

They’re rejoicing these days as a longtime thorn in the side, House Speaker John Boehner, prepares to step down and some of their ranks could start moving up in the House of Representatives leadership. They see new hope for efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act, keep taxes low and slash federal spending.

They’re dreaming.

“We continue to live in a separation of powers, bicameral system that is impossible to operate through parliamentary-style partisan majorities, where party discipline cannot be enforced,” said Burdett Loomis, a professor of political science at the University of Kansas.

The numbers are against a conservative takeover. For the next 16 months, they would need to overcome vetoes by President Barack Obama, and that would take two-thirds majorities of both Houses. Not very likely.

Even if the conservatives win a big mandate in next year’s elections, perhaps with the election as president of Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, or retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, success is hardly assured. They’d still need 60 Senate votes to cut off debate, a seemingly elusive goal.

These people that raise hell we’re not pure enough . . . their tactics are unrealistic and undeliverable.

Former Senate Republican leader Trent Lott

Here’s the struggle, year by year:

– 2015. Odds are that House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., a center-right favorite, succeeds Boehner. The hard right lacks the numbers, and for that matter the consensus candidate, to mount a serious challenge.

Then there’s the Senate. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., does not want a government shutdown. That takes away a lot of the leverage conservatives would have to force approval of some favorite initiatives such as defunding Planned Parenthood.

– 2016. The slugfest for the Republican presidential nomination pits the Cruz-Carson constituency vs. establishment types such as Jeb Bush, the former governor of Florida, and John Kasich, the governor of Ohio.

Chances are this fight for the party’s soul continues at least until March 1, when several Southern states hold primaries. It’ll undoubtedly surface at the July presidential nomination convention, when the two sides will battle over the party platform. The uncertainty about where the party is heading spills into Congress, where few want to be aligned with the losing side.

Republicans have a 247-188 majority in the House of Representatives. In the Senate, Republicans have 54 of the 100 seats.

– 2017. Republicans may get a president in January and are good bets to keep control of the House.

They still face roadblocks to overwhelming success. Recent presidents haven’t had long, productive honeymoon periods. They usually win one big victory at the outset: Bill Clinton’s 1993 deficit-reduction package that included tax increases, George W. Bush’s huge 2001 tax cut and Barack Obama’s 2009 economic stimulus.

Obama did win an overhaul of the health care system the next year, but only because he had 60 Senate Democratic votes. The April 2009-January 2011 period was the first time a party had 60 since January 1979, and it hasn’t happened since.

Nor it is likely in 2017. Republicans up for re-election won in 2010, when dissatisfaction with Obama was at a peak and the tea party movement had burst onto the political scene, channeling anti-Obama fervor and stoking strident opposition during the health care debate.

That means that in 2016, Republicans are defending 24 seats to the Democrats’ 10, including seats in Democratic-leanings states such as Illinois, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. The odds of Republicans getting to a 60-seat majority aren’t good.

– Beyond. Incumbent presidents’ parties traditionally lose seats in the first midterm election, making 2018 problematic.

Loomis noted that many political scientists see 2022 as a potential turning point, since that will be the first year after House districts are redrawn. But recent history shows both parties adept at crafting districts to maximize their strengths, leaving few true swing districts.

And there’s the practical matter: The longer the new health care system is in place, the harder it will be to just get rid of it.

That’s why veteran Republican stalwarts say sweeping change will remain difficult.

“These people that raise hell we’re not pure enough . . . philosophically on policy I may actually agree with them,” said former Senate Republican leader Trent Lott. “But their tactics are unrealistic and undeliverable.”

David Lightman: 202-383-6101, @lightmandavid

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