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.
National Journal
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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