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Need to Know: Politics

Marching as One

House Republicans who represent districts that President Obama carried are mostly voting with their tea party brethren.

This month’s bonanza of House floor votes on amendments to the resolution funding the government through September pro­­vided some unusually telling insights into the fault lines inside the largest Republican majority in the lower chamber since 1948.

On the biggest issues, a National Journal analysis of the voting shows, Republicans maintained remarkable unity through roll calls on the unusual weeklong series of amendments. In particular, GOP House members from marginal districts—including the 61 who represent districts that voted for President Obama in 2008—voted with their party much more reliably than did House Democrats from districts that backed John McCain over the previous two years.


But on several amendments with the sharpest conservative edge, such as eliminating the Legal Services Corp. or defunding the National Labor Relations Board, swing-district Republicans defected at somewhat higher rates than their colleagues in safer Republican seats, NJ found. That pattern suggests that the House GOP can maintain unity behind a broadly conservative course, but could nonetheless face tension as its tea party-inspired vanguard looks to push the outside edge in retrenching Washington’s role.

To assess the patterns among House Republicans, NJ analyzed 20 roll-call votes during the chamber’s consideration of the continuing resolution to fund the government. The votes represented a cross section of the most ideologically charged amendments; including proposals to impose additional across-the-board spending cuts; defund Planned Parenthood; block health care reform; shelve carbon regulations from the Environmental Protection Agency; and cut off funding for the United Nations.


On the biggest issues, the GOP held together almost monolithically. Only three Republicans (just one from a district that Obama carried) opposed final passage of the continuing resolution, which imposed the largest one-year cuts in domestic discretionary spending in recent times. Only seven (six from districts that Obama carried) opposed the amendment to cut off funding for Planned Parenthood, a priority for social conservatives. Just two (both from Obama districts) opposed an amendment to block EPA from regulating carbon emissions. Only two (also from Obama districts) voted against an amendment to block implementation of the health care reform law. (That tally largely reaffirmed the roll call in January when every House Republican voted to repeal the law.)

The decision by Republicans from districts that voted for Obama in 2008 to stand with their party on these big questions marked a clear contrast with the strategy over the previous two years from their ideological bookends—the McCain-district Democrats. While almost all of the 48 House Democrats from districts that preferred McCain voted for the stimulus plan in early 2009, more than half of them later broke with their party to oppose the health care reform law and cap-and-trade legislation to limit carbon emissions.

On the mirror-image votes to undo those initiatives, the Obama-district Republicans preponderantly made the opposite call—to stand with their party against some of the president’s top priorities. In their votes during the previous Congress, the cross-pressured Democrats bent toward the presidential result in their district; in these key early 2011 votes, the cross-pressured Republicans did not.

On other controversial amendments, though, House Republicans in swing seats displayed modestly different inclinations than GOP members in safer seats. Overall, across the 20 votes that NJ tracked, Republicans from districts that Obama carried voted against the conservative position on average 5.7 times. Those from districts that McCain won with less than 55 percent of the vote opposed the conservative position 3.5 times on average. Those in safer seats rejected the conservative position less often.


By contrast, there was virtually no difference between freshmen (who dissented on average 3.8 times during the 20 votes) and more-veteran members (3.5 times).

The Obama-district Republicans broke from the conservative position in greatest numbers to oppose an amendment to make large additional cuts in services for children and families and the proposal from the right-leaning Republican Study Committee to institute additional across-the-board spending reductions. After that, they dissented from conservatives most often by opposing proposals to defund the National Labor Relations Board and to eliminate an advanced-energy-research agency; by supporting funding for a program to hire local police officers; and by opposing efforts to block implementation of prevailing wage laws, to zero out funding for the Legal Services Corp., and to end U.S. contributions to the U.N.

Yet on most of those votes, even most Obama-district Republicans supported the conservative position. (Thirty-seven of this group for instance, voted to cut off U.S. funding for the U.N., and 55 voted to defund Planned Parenthood.) Could that degree of loyalty to such edgy conservative ideas alienate voters in those swing districts?

Joanna Burgos, a spokeswoman at the National Republican Congressional Committee, says that voters will judge lawmakers on their overall commitment to controlling spending, not their decisions on individual programs. But Matthew Bennett, vice president at Third Way, a centrist Democratic group, contends that these Obama-district Republicans have created vulnerabilities with their votes. “It is going to be real difficult for some of them to separate themselves from the more radical members of their own caucus, and that’s going to be a real problem,” he predicts.

Eventually, more of the Obama-district House Republicans might reluctantly agree with Bennett; but for now, they are mostly falling (right) in line with their party. 

This article appears in the February 26, 2011 edition of National Journal Magazine.

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