For Returning GOP Leaders, New Governing Challenges

Incoming freshman class includes vulnerable moderates and devout conservatives, with competing priorities.

Laura Brat watches as Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-OH) (L) and Rep.-elect David Brat (R-VA) participate in a ceremonial swearing-in on Capitol Hill November 12, 2014 in Washington, DC. AFP PHOTO/Brendan SMIALOWSKI (Photo credit should read BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)
National Journal
Nov. 13, 2014, 2:48 p.m.

Firmly reelec­ted by their con­fer­ence and seem­ingly united among them­selves, House Speak­er John Boehner and his Re­pub­lic­an lead­er­ship team now turn to gov­ern­ing in the 114th Con­gress, a task made easi­er, they say, by their largest ma­jor­ity in dec­ades.

Yet the new-look ma­jor­ity will bring new gov­ern­ing chal­lenges. Hav­ing sim­ul­tan­eously swept the Deep South while mak­ing gains in the North­east and along the Pa­cific Coast, lead­ers will have to ap­pease their en­trenched base while also pro­tect­ing the elect­or­al in­terests of their swing-dis­trict new­comers.

Where that le­gis­lat­ive middle road lies—if there is one—re­mains to be seen. But lead­ers are con­fid­ent they have more room for er­ror be­cause of the ex­pan­ded ma­jor­ity.

“It’s bet­ter for count­ing pur­poses to have a lar­ger ma­jor­ity,” said Rep. Patrick McHenry, the chief deputy whip, who also headed House Re­pub­lic­ans’ can­did­ate re­cruit­ment. “This is the broad­est fresh­man class and the most di­verse fresh­man class we’ve had.”

Those soon-to-be fresh­men swarmed in­to Wash­ing­ton, D.C., this week, giddy upon their elec­tion and preach­ing the man­tra of com­mon ground. But even the col­lect­ive high of their first week in the cap­it­al can­not ob­scure a fun­da­ment­al split in how deep-red-state and blue- and purple-state Re­pub­lic­ans must rep­res­ent their con­stitu­ents.

“I have pledged to New Hamp­shire to get things ac­com­plished,” said Rep. Frank Guinta, who was elec­ted in 2010, de­feated the next cycle, and reelec­ted to his old seat last week. “Look, there’s go­ing to be dif­fer­ent per­spect­ives and dif­fer­ent points of view, and that’s wel­comed. But you’ve got to find a way to get to a solu­tion-based gov­ern­ing ap­proach, and I think mem­bers from red states get that we have to gov­ern, we have a re­spons­ib­il­ity to do that.”

As a coun­ter­point, in as many as a dozen seats already safely held by Re­pub­lic­ans, re­tir­ing or de­feated GOP mod­er­ates are about to be re­placed by more-con­ser­vat­ive mem­bers. Among the new con­ser­vat­ive con­gress­men are Reps. Barry Loudermilk and Jody Hice of Geor­gia, as well as Gary Palmer of Alabama and Dave Brat, who un­seated former Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Eric Can­tor in Vir­gin­ia.

“There are nu­mer­ous move­ment con­ser­vat­ives in the new class,” one GOP chief of staff said. “If lead­er­ship thinks it’ll be easi­er to pass non­con­ser­vat­ive things, not only are they mis­taken, they are already selling out the man­date upon which so many new House mem­bers and sen­at­ors were elec­ted.”

Self-iden­ti­fied move­ment con­ser­vat­ives already serving in the House are heartened by what they see as backups in the fight to drive the party right. Rep. John Flem­ing, co­chair of an an­ti­abor­tion group, the Val­ues Ac­tion Team, said his group met Thursday to con­sider how to pass an­ti­abor­tion meas­ures in the next Con­gress, par­tic­u­larly by at­tach­ing amend­ments to ap­pro­pri­ations bills. They also want to act de­cis­ively against Pres­id­ent Obama’s policies on health care and im­mig­ra­tion.

“There’s go­ing to con­tin­ue to be a ten­sion between con­ser­vat­ives who really want to push the ped­al down, start for­cing things to hap­pen, [and mod­er­ates],” Flem­ing said. “The weight is mov­ing to more con­ser­vat­ive mem­bers, more con­ser­vat­ive policies. So that dy­nam­ic, that ten­sion will be there, but I think we’re go­ing to start win­ning more of these ar­gu­ments.”

But that is just the kind of le­gis­la­tion that could—and in the past has—got­ten mod­er­ate Re­pub­lic­ans in­to elect­or­al trouble. Keep­ing the Right happy and the cen­ter-Right in of­fice will not be easy. And some in the Re­pub­lic­an Party have come to the op­pos­ite con­clu­sion after the elec­tion, see­ing more mod­er­ates com­ing to the con­fer­ence—and per­haps to Boehner’s res­cue.

Sev­er­al House mem­bers have said keep­ing these gains out­side of red states will help the long-term sus­tain­ab­il­ity of a House Re­pub­lic­an ma­jor­ity. And they be­lieve even arch­con­ser­vat­ives will real­ize that Boehner and fel­low lead­ers would then need to pro­tect and boost the pro­spects of those po­ten­tially vul­ner­able mem­bers in 2016, a pres­id­en­tial year when Demo­crat­ic turnout is likely to be high­er.

The sur­viv­al of such new mem­bers will de­pend on more ef­forts at bi­par­tis­an­ship and le­gis­lat­ive ac­com­plish­ment, some Re­pub­lic­ans say.

Swing-dis­trict mem­bers “are go­ing to mean a lot to our con­fer­ence,” said Rep. Charlie Dent, one of three co­chairs of the Tues­day Group of cent­rist House Re­pub­lic­ans, which gathered on Thursday. Bey­ond how Boehner can keep con­trol of his con­fer­ence, Dent said, the big­ger is­sue should be how “we will gov­ern as a cen­ter-right party” in a way that will build the GOP bey­ond where it is now.

Mem­bers swept in­to of­fice in New York, New Hamp­shire, and Maine won nar­rowly and will likely have to vote ju­di­ciously to be reelec­ted. And the next fresh­man class will in fact in­clude more mod­er­ate mem­bers—if not old-fash­ioned Rock­e­feller Re­pub­lic­ans. Many of those owe their al­le­gi­ance to cur­rent party lead­er­ship, and lead­er­ship could take their in­terests in­to ac­count in re­turn.

“I think there’s enough mod­er­ates com­ing in to bal­ance out the Liberty Caucus,” sug­ges­ted one seni­or House GOP aide, nam­ing the Re­pub­lic­an Study Com­mit­tee, a splinter group made up of the most ar­dent right-wing voices.

That kind of bal­ance, some law­makers feel, is something that has been lack­ing the last few years.

“We have the ma­jor­ity party in Con­gress. With that comes a sense of re­spons­ib­il­ity, so I think some of the people who may have in the past wanted to go off on their own and take an overly hard line will real­ize that re­spons­ib­il­ity,” said Rep. Peter King, who has gone to battle with con­ser­vat­ives in his party over the last sev­er­al Con­gresses. “It’s not go­ing to be easy “¦ but I think it’s go­ing to be bet­ter than it was the last few years.”

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