J. Scott Applewhite / AP

Republicans hope to squelch intraparty divisions in new majority

Ideological differences on everything from immigration to trade could derail success of GOP’s legislative agenda

WASHINGTON — Basking in the glow of their resounding election victories, Republican leaders are expressing optimism that, under their tutelage, the dysfunction and animosity that has marked Congress for several years will give way to bipartisan cooperation and productive legislative sessions.  

In the wake of midterm elections, Mitch McConnell, expected to be elected Senate majority leader, noted that Republican President Ronald Reagan and Democratic House Speaker Tip O’Neill forged a bipartisan compromise on Social Security and President Bill Clinton and Speaker Newt Gingrich shepherded through welfare reform. 

“A lot of people believe that just because you have divided government doesn’t mean you don’t accomplish anything,” said McConnell at a press conference last Wednesday. “We ought to start with the view that there are some things we agree on to make progress for the country.”

But in addition to finding common ground with the White House, McConnell and House Speaker John Boehner face another, perhaps even thornier, challenge: maneuvering around their caucuses and mending internal divisions that could easily derail the GOP agenda.

“Mitch McConnell and John Boehner are saying fairly good things,” said Gabe Horwitz, a fellow at the center-left think tank Third Way. “They’re saying they want to work together and get things done. The big question mark is the huge tea party faction and Ted Cruzes of the world — are they going to let them deal?”

The fractures between mainstream Republicans and the insurgent right flank of the party have already begun to show anew, even as the GOP took its postelection bows.

Shortly after it became clear that Republicans won the Senate majority, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, who led the 2013 strategy to shut down the federal government over funding the Affordable Care Act, refused to say whether he would support McConnell as majority leader.

“That'll be a decision for the conference to make, and that'll be decided next week," he told CNN on Election Day.

McConnell brushed off the nonendorsement when pressed by reporters, saying, “Let me just make a prediction for you. A week from tomorrow, I’ll be elected majority leader.”

Meanwhile, Boehner faced questions about his strategy to tame his caucus, a problem he has confronted repeatedly while attempting to iron out deals on spending and the budget as well as immigration.

That expanded caucus will includes new members like Ryan Zinke of Montana, who in January called former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton “the anti-Christ,” and Mark Walker of North Carolina, who in September said he would send fighter jets to defend the border and had no qualms about starting a war with Mexico.  

“We have some new members who have made some statements — I’ll give you that,” Boehner said Thursday. “If you look at the vast majority of the members, they’re really solid members, whether it’s the youngest woman to serve in the Congress to another African-American Republican from Texas. We’ve done a very good job of recruiting good candidates, and we’re going to have a crop of very good members.”

Boehner and McConnell mentioned as their initial priorities approving construction of the Keystone pipeline, passing legislation to encourage the hiring of veterans and changing the definition of full-time employment under the Affordable Care Act from 30 to 40 hours a week.

Some conservatives are already bristling that the new Republican majority isn’t being vocal enough in its commitment to a full-scale repeal of the Affordable Care Act or taking a strong enough stance against Obama’s expected executive actions on immigration.

“This election was a rejection by the voters of both the Chamber of Commerce and Obama’s failed agenda. Every Republican candidate ran as a born-again conservative, campaigning in opposition to Obama’s Big Government policies,” Richard Viguerie, a prominent conservative activist, told reporters at a press conference Wednesday. “No Republican ran on a platform of cooperation, conciliation and compromise with President Obama.”

The Chamber of Commerce may take a different view. The pro-business organization spent $14 million on the 2014 elections — the vast majority of it buoying Republican candidates, according to data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonprofit based in Washington, D.C. Many of its efforts involved supporting pro-business Republicans over the tea party’s favored candidates in the GOP primaries. And in contrast to conservative activists, the Chamber has supported comprehensive immigration reform and come out in favor of making fixes to the Affordable Care Act instead of repealing it.  

Jenny Beth Martin, a coordinator for the Tea Party Patriots, said such positions constitute a betrayal of the very voters who elected the new GOP majority. “For Republican leaders, Speaker John Boehner in the House and presumed majority leader in the Senate Mitch McConnell, I have two words: Earn this. Live up to your promises,” she said. “The two issues that motivated our neighbors and friends to the polls should be the two issues that the new Congress addresses immediately.”

Even in policy areas that seem ripe for compromise and deals, trouble may loom. McConnell and Boehner have spoken optimistically of working with the president on trade agreements and tax reforms. But both liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans may take issue with the details.

“The danger with trade is the growing populist wings of both parties. You’ve got some Democrats from the left, but you’ve got some [Republicans] of the right who are questioning our engagement with global economic forces,” Horwitz said.

Further complicating matters is the 2016 elections. That leaves little time for lawmakers to score legislative accomplishments before Washington turns its attention to the presidential contest. Four members of Congress — Cruz, Rand Paul of Kentucky, Rob Portman of Ohio and Marco Rubio of Florida — are openly weighing presidential bids, potentially changing the dynamics of both chambers. 

But tensions within the Republican Party are nothing new or noteworthy, said John Pitney, a former Republican congressional aide and now a professor at Claremont McKenna College in California. “Squabbling is what Republicans do, but I’d much rather squabble in the majority than in the minority,” he said. “Majority status does give the majority party in the Senate some leverage. They get to structure the agenda and structure the votes in a way that is beneficial to them … I don’t think it’ll be crippling.”

Pitney, though, also said he wouldn’t hold his breath for the big-ticket legislative items.

“I wouldn’t bet on a whole lot, apart from the normal operations from government,” he said. “I think at the beginning of Congress, everyone talks about bipartisanship and agendas, and by the end they’re thankful if Congress is functioning.”

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