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Monday, February 2, 2015

"House Republican leadership is finding that it’s a mixed bag, having an expanded majority."

The Pitfalls of a New Majority
So far, the GOP hasn’t accomplished as much as it would have liked.
By Susan Milligan, February 2, 2015

It should have been a time of triumph for congressional Republicans, a chance to show their ability to lead. After spending all of President Barack Obama’s six years in office with one or both chambers in Democratic control, now the GOP had its opportunity – and at an opportune time, to boot. With a more muscular majority in the House and a new majority in the Senate, Republicans were ideally poised to pass legislation, dare Obama to veto it and cast the Democrats as the obstructionists who couldn’t manage to get things done when they were in power.

Less than a month into the 114th Congress, the reality is: not so much. House Republican leadership is finding that it’s a mixed bag, having an expanded majority. A bigger caucus naturally tends to create more factions within that group, and those minority-within-the-majority factions themselves feel more empowered to make demands.

In the Senate, Republicans are reminded that they are subject to the same frustrations and political pressures Democrats had when they were in power. Now, it’s the Republicans (with 54 seats) who need to muster the 60 votes needed to stop a Democratic filibuster. Several blue-state Republicans are facing the same landscape in 2016 as red-state Democrats did last year, and know they will be called to account for a party-line vote that doesn’t please their less-than-conservative constituents.

The majority “is a good place, because you get your ideas up for a vote. It’s a good place to be to drive your issues,” says Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. But “at the end of the day, you need collaboration,” Graham adds, or the Senate will remain as Democrats complained it operated when they were in the chair – paralyzed by a minority that won’t allow votes on bills that would pass with a simple majority.

In the House, where the Democratic minority is virtually powerless because of the chamber’s more majority-friendly rule book, Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, is tangling with irritations in his own party. His first few weeks have been marked by an intraparty fight over abortion, as well as an abandoned effort to pass a border control bill.

Boehner acknowledged the glitches but wrote them off as growing pains.

“We wanted to get off to a fast start this year and, as a result, taken bills that have passed in the past and put other bills together, in spite of the fact that committees in many cases have not had their organizational meetings,” Boehner told reporters after meeting privately with his caucus last week. “And so, yeah, there have been a couple of stumbles, all in our effort to show the American people that we’re here to listen to their priorities.”

The “stumbles,” as Boehner called them, started early. The House Republicans came right out of the gate with what could have been a great message-bill: a measure to ban abortions after 20 weeks.

But women in the Republican caucus balked, arguing against a provision that made exception for rape victims, but only if those victims reported the assaults to police. Critics say that provision unfairly punishes women who have been raped and who may already be afraid to come forward.

The measure was symbolic anyway: Democrats almost certainly would have filibustered it in the Senate, Obama would presumably veto it and it’s unclear whether it would have passed court scrutiny. In the end, House Republican leadership pulled the bill, leaving the party with no message at all, save a talking point for 2016 Democratic candidates eager to make women’s issues a bigger deal.

Immigration, too, was meant to be a rallying point for the newly empowered Republicans. But GOP leaders pulled consideration of a measure that would require the Department of Homeland Security to have “operational control” over the border to prevent illegal crossings.

Officially, the bill was pulled because poor weather prevented needed congressmen from making it to the vote, but conservatives say the measure didn’t go far enough because it didn’t undo Obama’s executive action extending temporary legal status to millions of immigrants in the country illegally. And the measure would have had an uncertain fate in the Senate, even with Republican control.

“I’m really concerned that there might be an impression that once this bill is passed, everything is taken care of,” says Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala.

The Senate, too, has gotten off to a rocky start. New Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., points out that the Senate has had more roll-call votes on amendments in the first few weeks than it did in the whole of last year. But Democrats are also complaining that McConnell shut down members of their party seeking to offer amendments on the floor (ironically the same charge Republicans levied against Democrats when they ran the Senate).

Several lawmakers offered amendments to a measure to approve the Keystone XL pipeline and were not offered a chance to speak on their own proposals before the amendments were tabled.

“It’s not surprising, but I hope it doesn’t represent the way we go forward,” says Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., whose bipartisan amendment on home heating assistance was not allowed even a discussion.

Piqued over the majority’s refusal to permit a debate and vote on amendments, as McConnell had pledged to do in principle, Democrats blocked a vote on the Keystone bill. The Senate did approve Keystone later in the week, but Obama has pledged to veto it.

Asked if Democrats would adopt the same strategy they themselves criticized – holding up bills that had majority support – Reed says, “My hope is that we don’t get there,” and that the majority will allow votes.

The GOP has another wrinkle, as well – Republican senators up for re-election in 2016 may need to display their moderate sides. Unlike their last election cycle, the GOP wave of 2010, these senators will be running in a presidential year, possibly with a Democratic nominee who could galvanize female voters and Democrats overall.

The disruption on the Hill, meanwhile, has enabled Obama to keep doing what he has been doing since the Democrats’ big November losses: go ahead on his own and make policy by executive action and federal rule-making. Obama recently proposed protecting more of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge from oil and gas drilling, while offering to allow drilling in the Atlantic – a compromise that does not satisfy Republicans.

“The president may want to have it both ways, but there is a huge disparity between what he is taking off the table for American energy security … for the small amount he’s putting on [the table],” says Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo.

The table, for the moment, is Obama’s to set, as long as Republicans are still adjusting to their new status on the Hill.

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