House GOP Rights the Ship—For Now

Republican leaders have figured out how to get bills passed and keep most of the conference happy, but tougher challenges await.

Newly elected House Majority Leader Rep Kevin Mccarthy (R-CA) walks out of a House Republican Conference meeting June 19, 2014 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. House GOPs elected McCarthy to replace Rep. Eric Cantor stepped down after losing his Virginia primary.
National Journal
Daniel Newhauser
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Daniel Newhauser
May 20, 2015, 4 p.m.

Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Kev­in Mc­Carthy star­ted the week off beam­ing, and he may have cause to do so.

No, he wasn’t still rid­ing the high of his week­end trip to the Ger­ald R. Ford Pres­id­en­tial Lib­rary and Mu­seum and buri­al site in Grand Rap­ids, Mich. The Cali­for­ni­an had his mind in­stead on the work he had just done in Wash­ing­ton.

“For all the times I get all the dif­fer­ent ques­tions: ‘What can we do? What can we not?’ Let’s just em­phas­ize what we did last week,” he said, proudly tick­ing off the bills the House passed the pri­or week: a con­tro­ver­sial abor­tion bill, NSA spy­ing re­form and the de­fense au­thor­iz­a­tion.

“Do you want to rave about last week?” he jabbed at a room­ful of re­port­ers.

In­deed, lead­er­ship is feel­ing con­fid­ent head­ing in­to the first sum­mer of the 114th Con­gress. For now, at least, Re­pub­lic­an lead­ers be­lieve they have put one of the rock­i­est Con­gres­sion­al starts in re­cent memory be­hind them, one dur­ing which Speak­er John Boehner faced a re­volt, sev­er­al seem­ingly shoo-in bills were put on hold for lack of con­sensus and a mass of neg­at­ive head­lines dogged them.

“It was a rocky start, no doubt about it. I think the lead­er­ship would ad­mit that,” said Rep. Jim Jordan, point­ing to edu­ca­tion, bor­der and abor­tion le­gis­la­tion that was pulled from the floor earli­er this year. “Cer­tainly there’s been some im­prove­ment.”

Chief Deputy Whip Patrick McHenry cred­its the turn­around to the week the House passed both a Re­pub­lic­an budget—re­con­cil­ing de­mands of both fisc­al and de­fense de­fense hawks—and a deal that fixed a for­mula by which doc­tors who treat Medi­care pa­tients are paid.

“That was a big turn­ing-point week, and it’s really a test­a­ment to the lead­er­ship team gel­ling and ac­tu­ally get­ting their sea legs and work­ing to­geth­er,” he said. “The Speak­er made a play call and that play call broke a long-range lo­g­jam and it showed that we can le­gis­late, that we can do big things, and some of the time they’ll be bi­par­tis­an.”

Of course, lead­ers will face sev­er­al more tests soon, es­pe­cially with the un­solved quandary of how to fin­ance high­ways await­ing in Ju­ly, the ex­pir­a­tion of the Ex­port-Im­port Bank loom­ing in June and tough bills on trade and in­tel­li­gence-gath­er­ing inch­ing through the Sen­ate. But head­ing in­to a weeklong re­cess, they are con­fid­ent they have found a for­mula for suc­cess get­ting bills out of the House.

Rep. Lynn West­mo­re­land, a mem­ber of the GOP whip team who of­ten aligns with con­ser­vat­ives, said part of the solu­tion has been lead­er­ship do­ing more out­reach and bring­ing a di­versity of voices in­to the fold. He poin­ted to the bill that bans late-term abor­tions as an ex­ample. Earli­er in the year, a com­prom­ise between wo­men and mod­er­ates seemed im­possible on the bill’s much ma­ligned rape-re­port­ing re­quire­ment, but lead­er­ship and an or­bit of mem­bers worked out a solu­tion that passed the House hand­ily (al­though the Sen­ate may nev­er take it up, and it likely wouldn’t be signed by the pres­id­ent any­way).

West­mo­re­land, who sits on the In­tel­li­gence Com­mit­tee, also cited the USA Free­dom Act. The bill rep­res­ents years of work and a com­prom­ise between civil liber­tari­an-minded mem­bers such as Reps. Jim Sensen­bren­ner and John Con­yers, and more hawk­ish mem­bers that in­clude com­mit­tee Chair­man Dev­in Nunes.

“We’ve been able to put to­geth­er some bills that can get 218 votes. That’s been the im­port­ant thing is see­ing lead­er­ship work with dif­fer­ent groups in try­ing to do that,” West­mo­re­land said. “That’s what we’ve been lack­ing. It’s been, ‘Here’s the bill.’ And now they’ve been try­ing to work between the dif­fer­ent groups.”

In­ev­it­ably, not every­one sees it that way. Con­ser­vat­ives in the House Free­dom Caucus have raised a bevy of pro­ced­ur­al com­plaints, though many do con­cede that the past few weeks have been bet­ter than the first six. On le­gis­la­tion im­pos­ing Con­gres­sion­al re­view over a nuc­le­ar draw­down deal with Ir­an and on the USA Free­dom Act, crit­ics on the right ar­gue they have been shut out of the pro­cess.

“Con­ser­vat­ives are side­lined, but so are all mem­bers of the Re­pub­lic­an con­fer­ence,” said Rep. Justin Amash, who wanted but was denied a chance to amend the NSA bill. He said le­gis­la­tion should be craf­ted as a com­prom­ise among all mem­bers, but “there’s an ef­fort to short-cir­cuit that com­prom­ise, to start off with what they think is the fi­nal product in­stead of let­ting the will of the House work.”

A top GOP lead­er­ship aide, however, shot back at that, not­ing that those two bills in par­tic­u­lar rep­res­en­ted a sens­it­ive tri­an­gu­lar bal­ance between what could pass the House and the Sen­ate while be­ing signed by the pres­id­ent.

“You can’t have a free-for-all every time,” the aide said.

The Ir­an bill in par­tic­u­lar was passed with far more Demo­crat­ic in­put, and a high-rank­ing Demo­crat­ic lead­er­ship aide noted that their side has been gen­er­ally pleased with the level of out­reach and in­put af­forded them.

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