The GOP’s Lost Agenda

House Republicans fear that their dysfunction has made even the most basic legislative tasks impossible.

WASHINGTON, DC - FEBRUARY 11: Rep. Steve Scalise (R-LA) speaks to the media while flanked by House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) (R) during a news conference at the U.S. Capitol, February 11, 2015 in Washington, DC. Speaker Boehner also spoke about issues before congress and the situation with ISIS. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
National Journal
Daniel Newhauser
Add to Briefcase
Daniel Newhauser
March 3, 2015, 12:47 p.m.

At a private meeting of House Republicans in January, Majority Whip Steve Scalise told his conference that if they did not effectively block President Obama’s executive action on immigration, nothing of genuine importance to the GOP would pass. They would cede their agenda to Senate Democrats for the next two years.

On Tuesday, as the House approved a Senate-passed bill funding the Homeland Security Department without riders targeting Obama’s immigration moves, members worried that they did just that.

It is clear, members across the ideological spectrum said this week, that after two months of embarrassing legislative and messaging stumbles, the House Republican Conference is riddled with fundamental and systematic problems. Forget sweeping, ambitious tasks such as tax reform. Even the most basic GOP legislative priorities for the rest of the 114th Congress are now at risk.

“Scalise was absolutely 100 percent [right]. So that brings us where we are. “¦ The next two years are going to be problematical to getting things done,” GOP Rep. Scott Garrett said. “That’s the truth of it. Once we concede to them controlling the agenda on this “¦ will we ever be able to get any of those bills through the House and the Senate the way we want them to be? The answer is no, because we’ve just laid the template for all future actions.”

What’s left is an environment in which members worry that pressing issues coming up over the next several months will not be able to pass. Members fear they will flub a budget, appropriations bills, a fix for the Medicare Sustainable Growth Rate, trade issues, a debt ceiling lift and myriad reauthorizations yet to be taken up.

As leaders recede behind closed doors to take stock of the damage, they have provided few solutions to their frustrated membership. But the display of disunity surrounding the DHS vote has pushed even members friendly to leadership to the point of exasperation. In particular, a failed vote to pass a three-week DHS continuing resolution last week miffed members who were told it would pass and voted for it, only to find 52 Republicans voting it into failure.

Members note privately that the mess of the last few weeks has amplified each of the top leaders’ flaws, and they cannot be absolved simply by claiming the conference is unmanageable. Speaker John Boehner, several members and staffers said, has too easily allowed himself to be railroaded into dead-end strategies and, if he believes the strategies do have merit, has not articulated a broader tactical vision to his conference to the point where they can support it.

Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy has been too foolhardy in scheduling bills for floor consideration, they said, failing to build consensus around policies before rushing bills that were largely written during the last Congress to the floor. And Scalise, who campaigned for the post as a would-be bridge between leadership and the right, has yet to prove he can get conservatives to vote for leaders’ legislation or get leaders to skew far enough right in their policy proposals.

Members close to leadership said the question of how to move forward in what has become a toxic climate is being discussed, and leaders realize the status quo is not habitable.

In fact, an analogy has been floating around in leadership circles: They are trying to fight the War on Terror using Cold War tactics. The tactical failure was evident not just in the DHS funding bill, but stumbles over the last several weeks on a border security bill, an antiabortion bill, and most recently, a reauthorization of No Child Left Behind — all of which had to be pulled from floor consideration because of a lack of votes.

To be sure, part of the problem is the balkanization of the conference. The group at the center of the most recent dustup, the House Freedom Caucus, formed this year with the explicit intent of pushing Boehner rightward, and has been a relentless headwind against Boehner ever since.

“We’re now operating essentially on a coalition government. We’ve got to figure out how in a coalition government we get to a majority on the bills that come to the House floor, and that may not operate exactly in the same way as we have in the majority in the last couple decades,” said one member who is close to leadership. “You now have the Freedom Caucus and the [Republican Study Committee] and the Tuesday Group and a whole set of folks who agree they are broadly under the banner of the Republican Party but they don’t necessarily agree on tactics or sometimes policy.”

That factionalism was evident on the House floor Tuesday, when Rep. Thomas Massie, a member of the Freedom Caucus, objected to bringing up the Senate-passed bill and spent 20 minutes of floor time along with his colleagues lambasting the failed strategy that produced a cave to what they called Obama’s executive amnesty. But Rep. Mike Simpson, who called for the vote on the Senate-passed DHS bill and managed the floor time for members voting for the bill, said Boehner is just as frustrated.

“I think he’s frustrated that he has listened to them, he’s let them have their say, he’s tried to respect their desires and what they want to do, and when those things don’t work out, they don’t go, ‘Oh, I guess that wasn’t too smart.’ They just keep pushing and keep pushing and keep pushing,” Simpson said. “I don’t know that you’re ever going to make the people on the Far Right happy, as long as you’ve got the Club for Growth and Heritage Action and all these people beating down on them to get more conservative.”

Centrist or pragmatist members such as Simpson are openly urging Boehner to cut the conservatives loose and start striking deals on center-right legislation with moderate Democrats — or at the very least, allow the bills on the floor to fail and then hammer conservatives for voting with Democrats against what leaders view as a good bill.

Conservatives, though, want Boehner to start from their position on most issues, particularly if the final product is not expected to pass the Senate anyway. Might as well start from the farthest point right, they said.

Their frustration with the speaker is only bolstered by the news Tuesday that a Boehner-aligned outside group, American Action Network, is running ads against Freedom Caucus members.

“It does make you scratch your head,” Rep. Mick Mulvaney said, “when you’re sitting there getting a message from your leadership about how you’re supposed to be a team player, you get a text from your office saying the American Action Network … is running ads against you in the district.”

Boehner spokesman Michael Steel noted: “We are forbidden by law from coordinating with outside political groups — but the speaker does not think these ads are helpful.”

Voting on some of those issues sought by conservatives endangers members representing more moderate districts, who would have to repeatedly cast votes on ultra-conservative legislation. So leaders are caught in a paradoxical loop of fits and starts to which there may be no resolution. But members said leadership has to try.

“We’ve got to have discussions within our family and figure out, how do we move forward so we really can govern?” Rep. Diane Black said. “These have got to be serious discussions specifically about what happened last week and how we make sure we get to 218, because we’ve got the majority and we’ve got to govern.”

What We're Following See More »
North Korea Says It Will Suspend Nuclear Tests
2 hours ago

"North Korea says it has suspended nuclear and long-range missile tests and plans to close its nuclear test site. The North’s official Korean Central News Agency said the suspension of nuclear and ICBM tests went into effect Saturday." The announcement comes shortly before Kim Jong Un "is set to meet South Korean President Moon Jae-in in a border truce village for a rare summit aimed at resolving the nuclear standoff with Pyongyang."

GOP Megadonor Running For Governor In Wyoming
6 hours ago

"Republican megadonor Foster Friess has told party leaders in Wyoming that he plans to run for governor," and is expected to make an announcement this afternoon. Friess has donated "millions of dollars to Republican candidates and causes over the last decade, according to federal campaign finance records," including over "$1.7 million to boost Santorum's [presidential] campaign" in 2016. Gov. Matt Mead (R) is term-limited, and "a handful of Republicans are running in an open primary to succeed him in one of the reddest states in the country."

Israeli Army Kills Four Palestinian Protestors
8 hours ago

Four Palestinian protestors have been killed by Israeli fire near the Gaza-Israel border, bringing the death toll to 38, in what marks the "fourth consecutive week of Gaza's March of Return mass protests." The marches are part of a "month-and-a-half-long protest organized by Hamas near the border fence," which organizers have said will not stop before May 15. The marches are intended to emulate anti-apartheid protests in South Africa, and to commemorate the forced expulsion of Palestinians from their homes in 1948, during the establishment of the State of Israel.

McCabe To Sue For Wrongful Termination, Defamation
9 hours ago

"Former Deputy FBI Director Andrew McCabe is looking to sue for defamation, wrongful termination and other possible civil claims, his lawyer told reporters Friday." McCabe's attorney Michael Bromwich said that his team "hasn't managed to find any witnesses to corroborate McCabe's version of the story," although they have not had enough time to do so. "McCabe’s lawyers are also seeking ways to release the emails between McCabe and Comey, which would offer insight into their communication about the leaks to the Wall Street Journal."

DNC Files Sweeping Lawsuit Over 2016 Election
9 hours ago

"The Democratic National Committee filed a multimillion-dollar lawsuit Friday against the Russian government, the Trump campaign and the WikiLeaks organization alleging a far-reaching conspiracy to disrupt the 2016 campaign and tilt the election to Donald Trump. The complaint, filed in federal district court in Manhattan, alleges that top Trump campaign officials conspired with the Russian government and its military spy agency to hurt Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and help Trump by hacking the computer networks of the Democratic Party and disseminating stolen material found there." The DNC is seeking "millions of dollars in compensation to offset damage it claims the party suffered from the hacks," and is arguing the cyberattack" undermined its ability to communicate with voters, collect donations and operate effectively as its employees faced personal harassment and, in some cases, death threats."


Welcome to National Journal!

You are currently accessing National Journal from IP access. Please login to access this feature. If you have any questions, please contact your Dedicated Advisor.