The more things change, the more they stay the same.
That was the external narrative of what happened Thursday inside the House Republican Conference. With an emergency border-funding package standing between them and a five-week summer vacation, the newly promoted members of the GOP leadership team—Kevin McCarthy as majority leader and Steve Scalise as majority whip—watched their efforts collapse at the last minute, sparking a breathless news cycle of accounts detailing the latest round of internecine warfare in the unruly House GOP.
By Friday night, however, the plotline had seemingly flipped. As House Republicans celebrated passage of their twin immigration-related bills—one providing funding for security and humanitarian programs on the southern border, the other curbing President Obama's authority on deportations—members couldn't help themselves. They pointed to the overwhelming unity of their conference in passing both measures without needing Democratic support, and mocked the media's portrayal of McCarthy and Scalise's supposedly disastrous debut.
"The stories that were written yesterday were absolute nonsense and totally premature," Rep. Tom Price of Georgia said after the votes.
Price, a mild-mannered medical doctor, captured the GOP's frustration—with the media's coverage, Obama's Friday morning taunts, and their opposition across the aisle—when he added: "You know who was in chaos? The Democratic members of the House. Because they didn't have a friggin' clue what was going on. They were all giddy because it looked like we weren't going to get it done.... But we were intent on staying until we got our business done."
Of course, there was good reason for the media to be skeptical: Before Friday's passage, House Republican leaders had already whittled down the border-funding package to a fraction of what Obama and Senate Democrats were proposing. They hurriedly tacked on the second bill, on deportation policy, because they didn't have enough votes yet for the first one. After postponing Thursday's planned roll call, they had to rewrite both measures to finally get a majority.
And coverage of Thursday's collapse was rooted in the context of recent history. After all, the incident contained many familiar hallmarks of a House Republican implosion: unreliable vote tallies, ideological one-upmanship, overconfidence within the leadership, and a last-minute aborting of what once seemed a safe and secure legislative mission. It was reasonable to conclude that despite the new faces in leadership, the same old problems persisted.
But this time, something was different.
"How many times in the three-and-a-half years I've been here have we gotten into a contentious issue and just threw up the white flag and gone home? Over and over and over again," Rep. Rob Woodall, interim chairman of the conservative Republican Study Committee, said Friday morning. "But this time folks came back together. And here we are, working together to make something happen."
In fact, it wasn't the leaders—new or old—who managed to salvage the GOP's biggest pre-recess priority. It was the rank-and-file members who led, and the leaders followed.
Indeed, when the border package was suddenly and unceremoniously yanked off the floor Thursday, it appeared the House would be heading home for August recess. That's when their members started giving Speaker John Boehner and McCarthy an earful on the House floor in full view of reporters, demanding they do something to give Republicans a chance to regroup and pass something—anything—to address the border situation before leaving town.
Soon the conference was meeting behind closed doors in the House basement. Members weren't sure whether they were being beckoned for a chewing-out before departing D.C., or a last-ditch pleading to "take one for the team" and pass the bill, as Rep. Steve King of Iowa predicted on his way into the meeting.
It was neither. Instead, Republicans across geographic and ideological divides spent the next 90 minutes emphasizing the imperative of banding together and finding a bill to pass—even one that stood no chance of passing the Senate and becoming law—before returning home to their districts.
"There are some technical questions on getting to 218 [votes]. But all 234 want to get a border resolution," Rep. Darrell Issa of California said, stepping out of that meeting. "So we're going to stay until we get it done."
McCarthy and Scalise informed members they were open to targeted changes that could attract support from the holdouts, and told lawmakers to expect plenty of meetings that night. They would reconvene as a conference at 9 a.m. Friday.
Like a football team calling a players-only meeting, a handful of Republicans who supported the initial bill began organizing a gathering for rank-and-file lawmakers—no leadership officials invited. (Scalise dropped by briefly for an update, but left to give lawmakers their space.) The effort was spearheaded by Rep. Raul Labrador, the outspoken conservative and former immigration attorney. Six weeks earlier, Labrador had lost to McCarthy in the race to replace Eric Cantor as majority leader; now he was helping the new leadership team corral votes needed to avoid further damage in its debut.
Labrador and Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte led the meeting of nearly two dozen members—Labrador directing the conversation, Goodlatte handling the policy specifics. Labrador kicked things off by going around the room, according to one member in attendance, posing a simple question to each of his colleagues: "What would it take to get you to yes?"
For the next two hours, in a cramped room in the Capitol basement, the lawmakers munched on delivery pizza and wrestled section-by-section with the twin pieces of legislation. The most vexing obstacle—and the one that, if cleared, could bring aboard the most conservative holdouts—was Obama's executive order on Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA.
Midway through the meeting, a breakthrough: King informed Labrador that proposed changes to DACA the group was debating would be sufficient to earn his support for the main funding bill. The two congressmen, who have butted heads repeatedly over immigration issues, congratulated one another. Other agreements soon emerged on specifics of the border funding bill. By the time the meeting adjourned, at least three other "no" votes had converted to yes, according to a source in the room.
When the meeting adjourned, a leadership staffer who had been keeping notes brought the proposed tweaks back to Boehner's team. Policy staffers "worked through the night" to amend the measures, according to Rep. Matt Salmon of Arizona, who attended the Labrador meeting and has served as a liaison between conservatives and Scalise's whip team this week.
The revised legislation, which included, among other things, tougher language to freeze Obama's DACA order and more money for the National Guard, was introduced to the conference Friday morning. It was during that meeting when King, Rep. Michele Bachmann, and several others stood to announce they would now be supporting the bill.
The numbers were there. Less than a day after they'd canceled their flights in the face of another internal meltdown, Republicans emerged from the gathering congratulating themselves on the forthcoming floor victory and lauding the laissez-faire approach of their leadership.
"What everybody was just gushing about today, was that the process was so much more inclusive," Salmon said outside the meeting. "Instead of trying to ram something through—and if we don't get what we want, we just go home, take our bat and ball and leave—this process was, 'Let's stay at the table.' "
When the changes were rolled out Friday morning, Salmon said, "It was the best rendition of 'Kumbaya' I've ever heard in my life."
The drama had all but abated by the time the bill reached the floor Friday night. The votes trickled in slowly, a few members of both parties waiting to see the tallies before casting their ballots. A cheer erupted on the Republican side of the aisle when the 217th vote was cast in the affirmative, and chief deputy whip Patrick McHenry—who along with Scalise worked around the clock whipping votes in their debut performance—made his way down the aisle shaking hands and receiving slaps on the back.
"It's about collaboration. We had some members of our conference that played very important roles here," McHenry said outside the chamber afterward, naming Labrador, King and Rep. Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee as members whose initiative and organization made it possible for leadership to succeed.
Or, as Woodall described the events of Thursday and Friday: "This was not a leadership failure. This was a rank-and-file success."
Democrats, unsurprisingly, didn't view it as a "success" for anyone, lambasting both GOP bills and predicting that Republicans' actions Friday would further cement their poor standing with Latino voters.
"These pieces of legislation dishonor America," House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said during floor debate Friday. "They are a rejection of our values."¦ House Republicans have truly lost their way."
Still, if the entire episode illustrated anything, it's how the travails of stewarding such a disparate conference is never-ending—no matter who sits at the leadership table and what ideology they claim.
"Boehner was considered a conservative once, too," pointed out a former senior House Republican aide who no longer works in Congress. "But just wait six months, and you'll see that Scalise will be seen more as a member of the leadership team, than [as] a conservative."
Whether Scalise maintains his conservative reputation remains to be seen. And, as this week's incident showed, his reputation as a reliable vote counter is far from established. But already many House Republicans say the man who promised a "member-driven" policy-making process in both of his internal campaigns—for RSC chairman and majority whip—is delivering.
Even some frequent critics of leadership said they had to tip their hat to Boehner, McCarthy, and Scalise.
"You know, I'll tell you, I even shook his hand," Rep. Austin Scott, R-Ga., president of the tea-party-dominated 2010 class, said of Boehner.
From disastrous debut to victorious maiden voyage in less than 36 hours, House Republicans are heading home happy. And the new leadership team suddenly finds itself with lofty expectations. Asked if they'll consistently replicate Friday's success, McHenry smiled. "First day on the job," he said.