For GOP, Changing Washington Isn’t So Easy After All

Republicans face the same question they asked of Obama: What happened to hope and change?

U.S. Senate Majority Leader Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY) (2nd L) speaks as (L-R) Sen. John Barrasso (R-WY), Sen. John Thune (R-SD), and Senate Majority Whip Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) listen during a news briefing after the weekly Senate Republican Policy Luncheon February 24, 2015 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. Senate Republicans held its weekly luncheon to discuss GOP agenda.
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Sarah Mimms
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Sarah Mimms
March 1, 2015, 3:01 p.m.

The new crop of Re­pub­lic­an mem­bers in the House and Sen­ate were elec­ted to do one thing: fun­da­ment­ally trans­form Wash­ing­ton. On the trail, they pitched big ideas and prom­ised ma­jor ac­tion — be­gin­ning to over­turn Obama­care, re­form­ing the tax code, and re­du­cing the na­tion­al debt.

But now that they’re in the na­tion’s cap­it­al, they’ve be­come mired in the slow-mov­ing, fin­ger-point­ing, tac­tic­al-delay life of #This­Town that they once railed against. They’ve found them­selves talk­ing about pro­ced­ure, reg­u­lar or­der, and clo­ture votes on mo­tions to pro­ceed to even just freak­ing be­gin dis­cuss­ing a bill — much less passing one.

The frus­tra­tion is palp­able. With a two-cham­ber ma­jor­ity in their hands, new mem­bers — and the old guard — prom­ised they’d turn Con­gress around by im­ple­ment­ing ma­jor re­forms and passing key le­gis­la­tion. So far this year, the House and Sen­ate have man­aged to agree on just three bills — one has already been ve­toed by Pres­id­ent Obama and an­oth­er was a sev­en-day ex­ten­sion of Home­land Se­cur­ity fund­ing passed Fri­day after a melt­down on the House floor.

The irony in all of this is that Re­pub­lic­an mem­bers are run­ning in­to the same real­it­ies as the very man whose fail­ings helped many of them to get elec­ted in the first place. Obama, too, came to Wash­ing­ton with grand ideas of chan­ging the way Wash­ing­ton works. And just as Re­pub­lic­ans are now learn­ing, he quickly found out just how dif­fi­cult that is to do.

This is the real­ity of Wash­ing­ton and now mem­bers are com­ing face to face with it. As former New York Gov­ernor Mario Cuomo fam­ously told The New Re­pub­lic: “You cam­paign in po­etry; you gov­ern in prose.”

For the new Re­pub­lic­an ma­jor­ity, the bulk of their blame lies with the Sen­ate, where con­ser­vat­ive le­gis­la­tion has, for years, gone to die. That was all sup­posed to change this year; yet even with a ma­jor­ity, Re­pub­lic­ans are tied down by the ne­ces­sity of get­ting six Demo­crats to vote with them in or­der to move any­thing through the cham­ber.

“The prob­lem is some­times el­ev­at­ing ex­pect­a­tions to the point that are un­real­ist­ic,” Rep. Mario Diaz-Bal­art said last week. “The les­son is that we can do a lot, we can change a lot, we can con­tain the pres­id­ent a lot of dif­fer­ent ways. But we have to re­mem­ber that most things in the Sen­ate re­quire 60 votes.”

Sen. John Thune, the Re­pub­lic­an con­fer­ence chair­man, said Fri­day that ex­pect­a­tions for the new ma­jor­ity may have been set too high. “I think that you al­ways have to keep ex­pect­a­tions at a real­ist­ic level, know­ing that it takes 60 in the Sen­ate to do any­thing and you’ve got a Demo­crat pres­id­ent who has elec­ted to veto most of what we send him,” Thune said.

Sen. Patty Mur­ray, the No. 4 in Demo­crat­ic lead­er­ship, laughed when asked if Re­pub­lic­ans had un­der­es­tim­ated just how dif­fi­cult it is to get things done in the Sen­ate, even with the ma­jor­ity. “I think I could char­ac­ter­ize it that way ex­actly,” she said.

To be fair, Re­pub­lic­an Sen. Richard Burr of North Car­o­lina and even Demo­crat Sen. Tim Kaine of Vir­gin­ia em­phas­ized, it’s still early. Re­pub­lic­ans have only had con­trol of Con­gress for sev­en weeks, and, in the GOP’s mind, Burr said, mem­bers are still “deal­ing with the leftover mess from the last Con­gress.”

In the first two months of the new Con­gress, Re­pub­lic­ans have passed a reau­thor­iz­a­tion of the Ter­ror­ism Risk In­sur­ance Act, which lead­ers aban­doned at the end of the last Con­gress. Then they took up the Key­stone Pipeline, an is­sue that has been rum­bling around the Sen­ate for years but couldn’t get past the 60-vote mark. Now, they’re stuck try­ing to fund the Home­land Se­cur­ity De­part­ment, an­oth­er is­sue lead­ers punted on last year after tough ne­go­ti­ations.

Once they get over those hurdles, it’s pos­sible that they will be­gin to get to work on big is­sues. But even then, Thune urged cau­tion. “I think we need to real­ize that it’s go­ing to be a very heavy lift to get big things done ab­sent the pres­id­en­tial lead­er­ship,” Thune said. “But we’re go­ing to do everything we can on our end to keep the ball mov­ing down the field.”

Sen­ate Pres­id­ent Pro Tem­pore Or­rin Hatch, a Utah Re­pub­lic­an, said he thought the mes­sage to new mem­bers, and the pub­lic, had been clear. “I think every­body knew it was go­ing to be tough. The Sen­ate is al­ways a tough place be­cause you’ve gotta have 60 votes to pass any­thing that may be slightly con­tro­ver­sial — or worse,” he said, chuck­ling.

The Sen­ate’s not the only one to blame. House Re­pub­lic­ans have fought among them­selves over the speak­er­ship and anti-abor­tion le­gis­la­tion, and they pulled an edu­ca­tion re­form bill Fri­day.

The fight over DHS and Obama’s ex­ec­ut­ive ac­tions on im­mig­ra­tion doesn’t help. Yes, fight­ing the pres­id­en­tial ac­tions on im­mig­ra­tion is a Re­pub­lic­an pri­or­ity, but con­tin­ued in­tra­party fight­ing over the Home­land Se­cur­ity bill is only delay­ing the GOP’s abil­ity to move on to oth­er things.

Rep. Marlin Stutz­man, a Re­pub­lic­an from In­di­ana, poin­ted to the di­vide between House lead­er­ship and their con­ser­vat­ive mem­bers that was ex­acer­bated by the DHS fight. “We’ve got to be able to trust them, and they’ve got to be able to trust us,” Stutz­man said of lead­er­ship. “And once that trust level is high and people are more com­fort­able, that’s when more things will get done. … If we’re not on the same page, we’ll nev­er be able to ac­com­plish any­thing with the pres­id­ent.”

As for do­ing something about the Sen­ate, frus­trated mem­bers of the House’s class of 2010, in par­tic­u­lar, have called on Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Mitch Mc­Con­nell to just change the rules, a bold move to re­form Wash­ing­ton in line with the kinds of prom­ises they made on the cam­paign trail. But over in the Sen­ate, vir­tu­ally no Re­pub­lic­an thinks that’s a good idea, even Sen. Ted Cruz, the tea-parti­er who was him­self elec­ted just three years ago.

Sure, chan­ging the rules could help Re­pub­lic­ans now and could cer­tainly hurt them later. But more than that, there’s a de­sire to pro­tect the in­sti­tu­tion, to main­tain the way things have been for years. One of the biggest reas­ons mem­bers blew up over then-Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Harry Re­id’s in­voc­a­tion of the nuc­le­ar op­tion in 2013 wasn’t what he did, but the way he did it. Mem­bers didn’t care so much that he changed the rules to a simple ma­jor­ity — that had been the pre­ced­ent fol­lowed in the Sen­ate since its in­cep­tion. They were angry be­cause Re­id used a par­lia­ment­ary man­euver to change them with only a simple ma­jor­ity rather than a two-thirds ma­jor­ity. What’s more il­lus­trat­ive of a stag­nant and in­sti­tu­tion­al­ist body than that?

After cam­paign­ing to over­turn Obama’s then-ex­pec­ted and now-ac­tu­al “ex­ec­ut­ive am­nesty,” fresh­men find them­selves no closer to block­ing the im­mig­ra­tion or­der than they were as pub­lic cit­izens. Sen­at­ors have now voted five times to try to de­fund the or­der and in the past few weeks have found them­selves talk­ing about Sen­ate pro­ced­ure more of­ten than the big is­sues they came to Con­gress to re­solve.

“Un­for­tu­nately, Demo­crats played polit­ics with our na­tion­al se­cur­ity and ac­tu­ally blocked Re­pub­lic­ans’ nu­mer­ous at­tempts to fund DHS weeks ago,” fresh­man Sen. Dav­id Per­due, a busi­ness­man-turned-politi­cian, said in a pro­ced­ure-filled state­ment on Fri­day. “This grid­lock is why Geor­gi­ans are so frus­trated with Wash­ing­ton and why they sent me here to try to make a dif­fer­ence.”

Em­phas­is on “try.” Without Demo­crat­ic co­oper­a­tion, there’s little Per­due and his col­leagues can do. This isn’t ex­actly the way things were done when Per­due was the CEO of Dol­lar Gen­er­al. Still, Per­due is look­ing on the bright side. He poin­ted to both the TRIA and the Key­stone bills as “mean­ing­ful” re­forms. “I’m proud of that,” he said.

But with a veto on Key­stone, and an­oth­er dozen veto threats await­ing them, there isn’t much room for op­tim­ism in this Re­pub­lic­an ma­jor­ity. At least for the time be­ing. Fresh­man Sen. Cory Gard­ner, who moved over from the House this year, said last month that the pa­cing has been the hard­est ad­just­ment for him. “I don’t know what kind of time frame they’re on here, but they need to move off of gla­cial,” he joked.

Re­pub­lic­ans aren’t alone in their frus­tra­tion. New Demo­crat­ic mem­bers are equally as fed up with how much the small-ball of Wash­ing­ton has dom­in­ated their time in Con­gress. “I ran be­cause I wanted to make a dif­fer­ence, I want to get things done for people,” two-term Rep. Patrick Murphy, a Demo­crat from Flor­ida, said. “I just talked to my people back home, and they’re just so tired of the Re­pub­lic­an-Demo­crat, the petty fight. It seems like big­ger is­sues that need to be de­bated, and we’re suck­ing up so much time and di­vert­ing it from what should be talked about. It’s just frus­trat­ing.”

Hatch, who has spent more than four dec­ades in Wash­ing­ton, sym­path­izes.

“Look, we all hope that we can do bet­ter. We all hope that we can get this ma­chine mov­ing bet­ter than it is right now, but that’s just the nature of this beast,” Hatch said.

Daniel Newhauser and Alex Brown contributed to this article.
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