While Congress now seems entirely at the mercy of its own internal dysfunction, there will come a time next year when, in theory at least, House Republicans will be in the best position to vote on divisive issues such as immigration or maybe even a long-term budget deal.
The sweet spot should come in mid-June, when half the states will have conducted primary elections and almost all members representing the others will know whether they face a primary challenger. It also will be far enough away from the November general election to insulate Republican incumbents from a conservative backlash if they bend on such issues as government spending or legalization for undocumented immigrants, according to several GOP strategists, some of whom would not speak on the record because of the sensitivity of the subject.
The proponents of this strategy have two goals. First, they want to neutralize interest groups like the Club for Growth that threaten to unseat incumbent GOP members who don't toe the conservative line. Second, they want to pass legislation that stands a chance of becoming law in an election year. Waiting until summer is the middle ground between the bullish Republicans who want to act now on government spending, the debt ceiling, and immigration, and cautious Republicans who want to hold off until after the 2014 election.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., represents the bullish camp. "I think it's dangerous" to wait until the summer, he said, particularly on immigration. "You can always find an excuse. People who say, "˜Let's wait until primary season' will say, "˜Let's just wait until after the [general] election.' "
A Republican strategist closely involved with House elections represents the cautious camp. "We would like not to do anything — CRs [continuing resolutions], debt ceiling, immigration — until after the 2014 elections," the strategist said.
A big-ticket item such as immigration will need Democratic votes to pass, and that's like catnip for primary challengers. But Republicans gauging next year's legislative landscape say the influence of primaries will be reduced to almost nothing later in the year. This summer "window" could allow conservatives to think longer term about the future of their party — i.e., by voting for an immigration overhaul and appealing to Hispanic voters — because they know their seats are safe.
That makes June or July the best time for the House to act on immigration, particularly if GOP members have already voted on enforcement-only legislation, such as mandatory electronic verification of workers, before tackling the weightier issue of a path to citizenship. While such a strategy makes Democratic leaders nervous, Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., who frequently bucks his own party on immigration, acknowledges that conservative enforcement bills will be the only way for the Republican-led House to go forward.
As for the debt ceiling, a February deadline as set by this week's Reid-McConnell agreement looms as particularly problematic, setting up a showdown in the near term. House Republicans who allow a debt-ceiling hike that doesn't include enough concessions from Democrats will likely irk the right-wing base and potentially lure primary challengers. Yet House members in most states won't even know if they face a primary fight by early February; only eight states have filing deadlines in January and February.
It helps slightly that one of the states with an early primary is Texas, whose 24 Republican members make up the largest GOP delegation in the House. Those lawmakers will at least know their primary status in January, when filings for challengers are due. But the primary election is March 4, which doesn't help them if they face a tough debt-ceiling vote. It would take just a few House members nervous about aggravating the conservative base to gum up whatever fiscal deal comes out of bipartisan budget talks.
For conservative purists, that's exactly the point. They consider their advocacy for the fiscal hard line a gift to Republicans who want to keep their seats and avoid voting on divisive issues such as immigration. "You don't go against the base that you need to turn out for you," said Dan Holler, communications director for Heritage Action, the political wing of the conservative Heritage Foundation.
Republicans who want to work with Democrats insist that the hard-line groups have a loud bark and a weak bite. But that's not always obvious early in the election cycle. "The fear of being primaried is really overblown, but it's being very effectively overblown," said Rebecca Tallent, a former chief of staff for McCain who now works at the Bipartisan Policy Center.
Until the summer, strategists say House Republicans should play small ball and move to topics such as school choice, flexible work time, and whittling away at President Obama's health care law. School choice (alternately phrased as "equal opportunity for education") and flex-time are attractive issues to women voters, whom the GOP sorely needs. An added bonus is that while unions generally oppose those proposals, most Americans support them.
Glitches in Obama's health care law will be a continual gift for Republicans, even if the House has to shift to smaller attacks on the statute rather than this year's repeated attempts at a full repeal. There is also ripe fodder for Republican voters in intelligence reform, which could draw attention to the weekly revelations about the administration's surveillance of citizens' email accounts and phone records.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, the South Carolina Republican who supports both tough immigration enforcement and a path to citizenship, said waiting until June for a House immigration vote could "release the pressure" on some members who are worried about primary challenges. But, he added, there is no point in talking about that kind of timing when Congress is enmeshed in an ongoing fiscal standoff. "I don't see how you can do anything big when you're sitting in the middle of this mess," he said.