Inside the GOP Leadership’s Roller-Coaster Debut

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Rep. Raul Labrador (R-ID) talks to reporters after the House passed the STEM Jobs Act November 30, 2012 in Washington, DC. The act would allow foreign students who graduated from U.S. colleges and universities with degrees in science and technology to obtain green cards to become permanent legal residents. President Barack Obama said he would not sign the bill unless it was part of larger and more comprehensive immigration reform legislation. 
National Journal
Tim Alberta Billy House
Aug. 2, 2014, 2 a.m.

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.

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