For the most part, Boehner has buy-in at the top. His second-in-command, Eric Cantor of Virginia, backs his theory of evolution but also wants to make sure that the midterm message isn’t muddled. Cantor wants a firm, conferencewide ban on earmarks, calling them “emblematic of what’s wrong in Washington.” House Republicans banned the practice for this election year, but no commitments have been made for a GOP-run House. Renouncing earmarks is likely to be a litmus test for many of the Republicans elected with tea party support.
The Boehner doctrine of evolutionary change is simultaneously dull and perilous. How can House leaders turn back the clock to days of languid committee deliberation and deference to various barons and at the same time harness and direct the nail-chomping intensity of 40, and possibly 60, new members hell-bent to dismantle—and they mean, like, yesterday—big chunks of President Obama’s legislative portfolio? (Health care, economic stimulus, and financial regulation top the list.)
It’s the question that keeps Republicans up at night. Many are still in shock from the two previous election cycles in which they lost 55 seats, relegating them to what, just 22 months ago, looked like an island of political and policy irrelevancy. Among the deepest lessons that Boehner and company appear to have learned from the experience is that there are no guarantees.
Power, perks, political allegiances—all ephemeral.
THE REPUBLICAN AGENDA
House GOP leaders and their rank and file see spending and taxes as the key issues for their new majority, and Boehner intends to use the debates over those issues as the glue to hold his caucus together as members grow accustomed to the levers of power.
The assumptions of the leaders-in-waiting begin with the conviction that they will face tough tax and budget issues almost immediately. They see no prospect of resolving the fight over the totality of Bush-era tax cuts during the lame-duck Congress and are girding for an early January showdown as tax increases hit every bracket (the Bush tax cuts expire at midnight on December 31).
They also expect the White House and congressional Democrats to do as Republicans did when they lost the majority in 2006—punt unfinished spending bills to the new Congress. This will force Republicans to instantly put spending cuts promised on the campaign trail into legislation, even as they try to push the tax issue against a potentially hostile Democratic Senate and an Obama White House eager for definitional fights.
If neither issue is resolved when Congress returns to Washington after the election, House Republican leaders would be compelled to write new tax legislation and deal with unfinished spending bills in their very first month in power. That crucible would test Boehner’s ability to organize, mobilize, and channel the energy of a possibly untamable new majority. There is no master plan, merely the rejectionist rhetoric that first fueled tea party protests and that establishment Republicans like Boehner call their own.
“The president is going to have to realize that he can’t keep ignoring the American people,” Boehner said. “They’re out there looking at what the president and Pelosi and [Senate Majority Leader] Harry Reid are doing, and they’re shouting, ‘Stop,’ at the top of their lungs. We’re going to listen to them, and the president [had] better, too. We’re going to stay focused on doing what the American people want, and what they want is less spending.”
One decision has been made: Republicans intend to bring at least one separate bill proposing a cut in federal spending to the House floor every week—a public-relations device to nibble at the deficit and at the same time offer some evidence of attempted belt-tightening while bigger debates over spending, debt, and entitlements gestate. Dusting off another old tool, Republicans plan to give the Budget Committee greater clout to scrutinize and stop spending by seeking to undo programs that are receiving funding without a separate congressional authorization—a two-step process created in the 1974 Budget Reform Act but summarily ignored by contemporary Congresses (including those of the Gingrich era).
Another big decision, one that may test the balance between long-term goals and short-term zeal: House Republican leaders have preemptively ruled out pushing a government shutdown as part of any budget negotiations. Boehner, Cantor, and Kevin McCarthy of California, the chief deputy whip, all rejected using even the threat of a shutdown as a negotiating tactic. “Our goal is to cut the size of government, not shut it down,” Boehner told National Journal. “People across the country don’t want to see the government shut down,” McCarthy said.
How will the GOP avoid the still-reverberating trauma of the Clinton-era shutdown confrontation? Overall, Republicans believe they can negotiate tougher budget cuts than Obama wants and extend all the Bush tax cuts because, they say, the U.S. economy is in a much weaker position than it was during the face-off with President Clinton. (At that point, unemployment stood at 5.6 percent, and the federal debt at $4.7 trillion, compared with today’s 9.6 percent unemployment and $13.6 trillion debt.) “Nobody in America thinks this recession is over,” Cantor said. “There’s a veil of uncertainty over this entire economy. And the leverage we have is that [Obama] has got to come through the House to get a tax bill.”