Need to Know: House


The 2010 House freshmen now control virtually the entire GOP agenda, and they appear utterly unconcerned about 2012.

Congressman Tom Perriello, D-Va., right, speaks as State Sen. Robert Hurt, R-Chatum, listens during a debate sponsored by the Lynchburg Chamber of Commerce at Randolph college  in Lynchburg, Va., Wednesday, Oct. 27, 2010. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)
National Journal
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Terence Samuel
March 17, 2011, 10:46 a.m.

The last elec­tion, rather than the next, is the force driv­ing Re­pub­lic­an na­tion­al polit­ics. Car­ried by its mo­mentum, the party in Con­gress and state le­gis­latures is fo­cused en­tirely on spend­ing cuts. Most of the ac­tion so far is in Wash­ing­ton, where the huge House fresh­man class has the wider GOP in its thrall.

The chal­lenges that this dy­nam­ic will pose star­ted to be­come clear this week. So many House Re­pub­lic­ans de­fec­ted on a vote to ex­tend spend­ing au­thor­ity for three more weeks that Demo­crats had to help pass it. Fifty-four Re­pub­lic­ans, al­most 40 per­cent of them fresh­men, snubbed the party lead­er­ship and joined a ma­jor­ity of Demo­crats in vot­ing against the con­tinu­ing res­ol­u­tion. The Demo­crats voted no be­cause they found the pro­posed new cuts of $6 bil­lion too severe. Re­pub­lic­ans, on the oth­er hand, voted no be­cause they thought the hits were too mild or be­cause they ob­jec­ted to the drip-by-drip ap­proach, or both.

Speak­er John Boehner found him­self in the wobbly po­s­i­tion of hav­ing to rely on Demo­crat­ic yeas to pass a bill to avoid a gov­ern­ment shut­down. He is left with an ugly choice: Com­prom­ise with Demo­crats or ca­pit­u­late to his own caucus. The weak­ness of Boehner’s po­s­i­tion be­comes clear­er when you ex­am­ine the pat­tern of de­fec­tions in Tues­day’s vote. The GOP dis­sent­ers, for the most part, were not can­did­ates in mar­gin­al dis­tricts, wor­ried about their chances in 2012. It is more the op­pos­ite. Forty-six of them rep­res­ent dis­tricts that John Mc­Cain won in 2008, and 29 of them are from dis­tricts that he won by at least 55 per­cent.

They are not run­ning scared but stand­ing firm, and no one can say dif­fer­ent: no George Bush call­ing for com­pas­sion­ate con­ser­vat­ism; no Bob Dole or oth­er or­tho­dox fisc­al con­ser­vat­ive soft-ped­al­ing tax cuts. Boehner’s prob­lem is not the pull of the middle but the en­er­gized and un­op­posed forces on the right.

Tues­day’s vote ac­tu­ally un­der­stated his quandary. There are more de­fec­tions where those came from. As em­bar­rass­ing as the no votes were, many of those who voted for the CR pledged that it was the last time. Of the GOP’s yes votes, 133 rep­res­ent dis­tricts that Mc­Cain won; 41 of them are fresh­men. If they choose to defy the party next time, Boehner can do little about it.

So, ex­pect a more con­front­a­tion­al tone from the Re­pub­lic­an side. From the Demo­crat­ic side, ex­pect the same. When the House passed a fund­ing res­ol­u­tion on March 1 to keep the gov­ern­ment op­er­at­ing for two weeks, 104 Demo­crats voted for it and 85 against. This week, for the three-week ex­ten­sion, those num­bers were re­versed: 85 yeas and 104 nays. Among Demo­crats, the switch­ers were also mem­bers with safe seats. Of the 19 new no votes, 17 were cast by mem­bers in dis­tricts where Barack Obama won with at least 55 per­cent of the vote.

The bases are as­sert­ing them­selves. “Let’s re­mem­ber that on Novem­ber 2, the people of Vir­gin­ia’s 5th Dis­trict and the people across this coun­try sent a mes­sage to Wash­ing­ton,” Rep. Robert Hurt, a fresh­man from cent­ral Vir­gin­ia, de­clared on the House floor. “The mes­sage was ur­gent, it was clear, and it was loud. The mes­sage sent was that now is the time to stop the gov­ern­ment spend­ing, stop the gov­ern­ment bor­row­ing, and stop the raid on our chil­dren’s fu­ture.”

There you have it: the en­tire Re­pub­lic­an agenda, boiled down to its es­sence. The no-com­prom­ise ap­proach is com­ing from Hurt and oth­er new mem­bers whose single-minded­ness is likely to be prob­lem­at­ic for a party look­ing to craft a mes­sage of broad­er ap­peal go­ing in­to the 2012 pres­id­en­tial cycle. Already, polling sug­gests that voters would like a more meas­ured ap­proach than that es­poused by some in the fresh­man class.

A mod­er­at­ing in­flu­ence in this struggle might even­tu­ally come from the pres­id­en­tial field, but the field has yet to take shape — and for the most part re­mains si­lent. Four years ago, Hil­lary Rod­ham Clin­ton, John Ed­wards, and Obama were already en­gaged in elab­or­ate pos­tur­ing, all try­ing to fin­esse their po­s­i­tions on the war in Ir­aq. And, in­stantly, some of the Hill’s most lib­er­al Demo­crats were ex­press­ing dis­ap­point­ment that their can­did­ates had gone soft on the war. “We’ve got a fake de­bate go­ing on in­side the Demo­crat­ic Party right now on the war,” Rep. Den­nis Ku­cinich of Ohio com­plained. “People are say­ing they are for peace, and they are vot­ing to keep the war go­ing.”

No such mod­er­at­ing pres­sure is yet forth­com­ing in the GOP. The mutiny on gov­ern­ment fund­ing this week went way bey­ond the fresh­man class, but — no ques­tion — the 87 new House Re­pub­lic­ans have re­defined what it means to be a con­tem­por­ary GOP con­ser­vat­ive. House Ma­jor­ity Whip Kev­in Mc­Carthy says that the fresh­man class is the key to the party’s suc­cess and that its mem­bers are uni­fied and com­mit­ted to the budget-cut­ting mis­sion. “Some people will lose [elec­tion] over some of what we do,” Mc­Carthy ad­mit­ted, pla­cidly.

It will be in­ter­est­ing to see how far up the na­tion­al tick­et they ex­pect this noble sac­ri­fice to reach.

Contributions by Scott Bland