“The president is going to have to realize that he can’t keep ignoring the American people.” —Minority Leader John Boehner
But a significant internal fight looms over how to cut spending and who will be allowed to wield the knife. Jerry Lewis of California is in line to chair the powerful Appropriations Committee, but he would need a waiver of the six-year term limit rule. Lewis’s bid divides top Republicans, some of whom view him as too accommodating to spending; many of the aggressive freshman budget-cutters are likely to see the fight, correctly or not, as a litmus test of the leadership’s commitment to deep spending reductions. Lewis and Rep. Hal Rogers of Kentucky, his possible successor, have preemptively declared their support for extending the earmark ban into the next Congress. They may not have had a choice. “Earmarks as currently known are dead,” McCarthy says. And Boehner? “Change is never easy, but change is necessary. Going back to ‘business as usual’ is not an option.”
On other issues, a House Republican majority would probably challenge Obama’s massive health care law from two fronts: limiting or blocking the spending needed to enforce regulations or administer new federal programs, and using the investigatory power of various committees to raise questions about already-implemented or soon-to-be implemented provisions. “Repealing” the health care law is a high priority, but House Republicans realize that the president will give little or no ground. They must prepare their members for months of trench warfare with little to show for it but changes around the edges until a new president or a larger GOP Senate majority arrives after the 2012 election. “It is up to us to begin the process of repealing the law,” Cantor said. “But we have to be very deliberate in making the case.” Clean-energy legislation, a priority of Pelosi’s, will fade under the GOP. And legislation to combat the threat of global warming, which a growing number of Republicans dispute is even happening, will move into a deep freeze.
As they contemplate this agenda, House Republican leaders say all the right things about learning from the errors of the past and proceeding with modesty. They lace their assessments of the likelihood of wrenching power from Democrats with embroidered words of caution and circumspection.
“It’s not a Republican victory,” McCarthy says of the election still not yet won. “People are still leery. This is a large vote against the current majority and the president. There is a window of opportunity. But if Republicans lose their way, we will never have an opportunity again for at least another generation.”
But what is the way? How do Republicans define it, and how does moving deliberately make it work? Can it work? Can a plan to cautiously, systematically confront a Democratic president and a Senate likely to remain Democratic (if with a much smaller majority) yield anything but gridlock? Who gives in? How much deal-making will the tea partiers tolerate? No one knows.
If the GOP wins the majority, no one can even say how far the new members who provide it will follow the senior members who lead it. McCarthy, who headed the GOP’s recruiting effort for this election cycle and probably knows the incoming freshmen better than any other party leader, says that they “don’t care about the seniority or the structure” of Congress, and he predicts that “they are going to have such power the senior members won’t understand it.”
If Republicans take the House, they will gain not only power but also exposure to a public that has not demonstrated lasting allegiance to either party throughout this decade. A recession-weary nation will continue looking to Washington, not just for change but also for results—tangible improvements in their economic future. Republicans know that they can’t satisfy those expectations by themselves and strictly on their terms, no matter how much the tea party might wish it so. How, then, do House Republicans intend to measure success if they win their majority?
“It will be very wise for us to remember that we are going to be operating as a majority in an environment with the opposition in control of the executive branch and, probably, the Senate,” Cantor said. “The goals we set have to be set in that context. Part of being able to say we’ve delivered is to improve the lot of the country. But we can’t summarily say we’re going to cut spending any way that we want to if the president doesn’t go along. We have to demonstrate competency in leadership.”
McCarthy, who may become the party’s No. 3 leader with only two years in Congress under his belt, speaks with the same you’ve-never-seen-anything-like-this zeal that many Obama supporters used in 2008. He envisions a changed political landscape that will transform the culture of Washington and bring new, lasting change—more lasting and in a far different ideological direction than the changes of 2006 and 2008.
“This is a different time,” McCarthy said. “This is a behavior-change recession. People are changing their behavior. They are saving and living with less. These [Republican] candidates out here are not getting elected by promising things they will deliver inside their districts. This is going to be a behavioral change for government.”
So far, the bumper stickers for the top voices in what may be a House Republican majority can be summarized as follows: Boehner: Old School Rules; Cantor: Competency in Leadership; McCarthy: Change the Culture.
And therein lies the subtle space between revolution and evolution. House Republican leaders—even the upstart McCarthy—remember the sting of losing power, something the Gingrich clan never knew. Losing power and being unsure when they might regain it appears to have chastened House Republicans as they stand on the threshold of power. They know the voters’ energy is not a force they created but have only attempted to harness. They know they are not beloved. They know that the grassroots anger that may propel them to power grew up outside of any battered and neglected party infrastructure. They have no illusions about a new Republican machine. They have no agreement on how to meet their supporters’ demands to sharply cut federal spending without alienating the same mercurial independents who could bring them to power next week, only two years after helping Democrats achieve their most decisive victory since 1964.
They know, in other words, far more about their limitations than their aspirations. Their destination is clearer than their path.
And that may be the biggest change of all.
CORRECTION: The original version of this report should have stated that John Boehner was elected to the House in 1990.
This article appears in the Oct. 30, 2010, edition of National Journal.