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.