The New Congress and Its Fitful Start

Conservatives have hoped that the newly installed Republican majorities in both chambers of Congress will be like the cavalry coming to the rescue in one of those old John Ford westerns, but the session is off to a start more reminiscent of the old “F Troop” series.
The first official act of the new congress was to elect the same old Republican leadership, which conservatives had long found too timid in their confrontations with the president even before they ended the last session with a whimpering acquiescence to a “Cromnibus” budget deal that did little to limit the president’s hated executive order granting amnesty to millions of illegal aliens and was otherwise so pleasing to the president that he actually phoned some of his party’s legislators to lobby on its behalf. Kentucky’s Sen. Mitch McConnell was elevated from minority leader to majority leader in routine fashion, but Ohio’s Speaker of the House John Boehner had to endure a bit of drama in order to retain his post. He only lost 25 Republicans votes to a variety of candidates that were never serious contenders, but that was enough for The Washington Post to describe it as “the biggest revolt against a House speaker in more than 150 years” and feed a popular press narrative about those crazy conservatives and their wacky war within the Republican party. The party leadership enjoys the good guy role in this tale, with The New York Times touting Boehner’s pledge to “restore function and civility to a body that has become a symbol of disorder for most Americans.”
Within hours such narrative-spinners as Politico were gleefully reporting that Boehner’s desire for “function and civility” had compelled him to punish a few of the dissenting voters by stripping them of desirable committee assignments. This is a common and longstanding practice by the leaders of both parties in order maintain a necessary unity, but in this case it is more likely to exacerbate the party’s divisions. The conservative activists who are largely responsible for the Republicans holding a majority in the House of Representatives will understandably be less enthusiastic about toeing the party line, and no more intimated by the results. Among those voting against Boehner was Rep. Tim Huelskamp of Kansas’s First District, who had already been stripped of a coveted seat on the Agriculture Committee for his past confrontations with Boehner but survived a primary challenge and a general election by candidates who tried to make an issue of it and survived to cast another vote against Boehner, and we don’t expect that he or any of the other rebels will be more compliant in the future.
Nor does it help for the party leadership to corroborate the media depiction of the conservative faction as a bunch of crazies. If the Republicans don’t confront the president on illegal immigration and become even more aggressively tight-fisted on budget they will eventually face a full revolt from the party’s most important voters, and when tit comes down to the inevitable confrontation with the the president the media won’t be giving them any more good guy roles. Plans to get a veto-proof vote on the XL Keystone Pipeline as the start of a busy schedule of other poll-tested bills that president will hate are a good strategy, and a reminder that McConnell and Boehner and the rest of the leadership didn’t get their establishment credentials without some of the political strategy that their more ideological and less pragmatic challengers too often lack, but the bigger battles won’t be won without the conservative’s support and sound ideas.

— Bud Norman