GOP Leaders Look for Congressional Wins After Early Stumbles
Policy + Politics

GOP Leaders Look for Congressional Wins After Early Stumbles

It’s all but certain that the House will vote on Wednesday to approve the Senate version of a bill authorizing construction of the controversial $8 billion Keystone XL pipeline. The project is the centerpiece of the GOP’s energy production initiatives and a major dispute between the Republicans and the White House. But it will be a largely symbolic victory because there is no way the House or the Senate can muster the two-thirds majority necessary to override President Obama’s threatened veto.

Related: Cruz Says GOP Plays a Losing Hand on DHS Spending

Still, the new Republican majority in Congress needs something to cheer about after a relatively dismal start to the new 114th Congress a little more than a month ago. With time running out before a President’s Day recess, Congressional GOP leaders have a dilemma. They must decide whether to continue to try to use a Department of Homeland Security spending bill to block Obama’s executive order exempting nearly 5 million illegal immigrants from deportation or cave to the president and risk once again incurring the wrath of the conservative Tea Party wing of the party.

House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) who barely won reelection to his top spot because of solid opposition from his party’s right wing said last week that the House had shown its moxie by approving the DHS spending bill blocking Obama’s presidential orders. He added that it was time for Senate firebrands like Ted Cruz of Texas and Jeff Sessions of Alabama and the Democrats to pull up their socks and pass the same legislation.

But with the Democrats standing firm behind the president, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and the 53 other Republican senators can’t reach the 60-vote supermajority needed to break a filibuster. Over the weekend, Cruz, who rallied conservatives in both chambers to partially shut down the government in 2013 in opposition to Obamacare, mocked the GOP leadership in nationally televised interviews and said they were playing a losing hand against Obama.

Related: McConnell Previews GOP Agenda of Compromise, Confrontation  

There have been other setbacks for the Republicans after their landslide victory last November. Late last month, Boehner and other House GOP leaders bowed to the demands of several moderates and female Republican members. They pulled a controversial anti-abortion bill from consideration on the eve of the annual March for Life on Capitol Hill and replaced it with a less restrictive measure. The episode exposed a growing concern among Republicans that continued emphasis on culture-war issues could distract from the GOP’s broader agenda and undercut hopes of retaking the White House.

Boehner is also being battered by congressional Democrats and even some Republicans for having invited Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to address a joint session of Congress on March 3 without first conferring with the White House. Boehner insists that Congress, as an independent branch of government, can extend such an invitation without the consent of the president.

Last Friday, however, a senior Israeli official suggested that Netanyahu had been misled into thinking that the invitation was fully supported by the Democrats. Political pressure is mounting for Boehner to withdraw the invitation or change the venue for the speech.

This wasn’t the way it was supposed to be after the GOP reclaimed control of both chambers of Congress for the first time in nearly a decade. Boehner and McConnell both extended an early olive branch to Obama and highlighted a number of areas, including trade, tax reform and infrastructure, where the two parties could work together. McConnell, a savvy veteran politician and consummate dealmaker, viewed divided government as an ideal way to finally get some work done and to demonstrate to Americans that Republicans could do a lot more than oppose Obama’s legislative and policy agenda.

But Obama didn’t waste much time stirring the pot by threatening to veto as many as five GOP measures if they reached his desk, including the Keystone pipeline and DHS spending legislation. And he unveiled a new budget plan that infuriated many Republicans with its call for tens of billions of dollars more in spending on programs targeted to the middle class while doing nothing to further reduce the long-term deficits and debt.

Related: In the Obama White House, It’s Deficits as Far as the Eye Can See  

Republicans quickly sought to challenge Obama on a number of policy fronts, saying he hadn’t learned anything from the Democratic debacle last November, but their tactics in trying to block the president’s immigration orders to protect millions of illegal immigrants and their children has backfired.

The Wall Street Journal editorial page, the voice of mainstream conservatism, blasted the Republicans’ tactics on Monday for trying to utilize the$40 billion homeland security bill as a battering ram against immigration reform after three failed efforts to pass it in the Senate.

“It’s not too soon to say that the fate of the GOP majority is on the line,” the Journal editors wrote. “Precious weeks are wasting, and the combination of weak House leadership and a rump minority unwilling to compromise is playing into Democratic hands. This is no way to run a Congressional majority, and the only winners of GOP dysfunction will be Mr. Obama, [House Minority Leader] Nancy Pelosi and Hillary Clinton.”

House and Senate GOP leaders bridle at the criticism, while some analysts say it is far too soon to make any definitive pronouncements about the direction of the Republican-controlled Congress. “Republicans have only been in power for a month and they’re moving forward on several pieces of legislation,” said Ron Bonjean, a political strategist and former House GOP communications director. “They’ve got Keystone, they have the Republican budget they’re starting to work on…. I think judging them now is premature.”

Related: Obama Would Violate Budget Control Act with $34B More for Defense  

Bonjean acknowledged that the Republicans’ efforts to link the immigration reform issue to homeland security at a time of mounting fear of the threat from ISIS and other Middle Eastern terrorists was a bad idea, and that Republicans must find a way out of the bind.

“I’d say it’s pretty clear that the strategy around funding homeland security and tying it to immigration is not working out,” Bonjean said. “And it’s going to be important for them to figure out what the next steps are, sooner rather than later, because Republicans are politically vulnerable should there be a terrorist attack.”

Bill Hoagland, a former Senate GOP budget and domestic policy adviser, noted that once the homeland security funding is resolved, the new Congress must confront other challenging issues, including a perennial Medicare doctors’ reimbursement controversy, whether to lift the caps on defense and domestic spending, raising the debt ceiling and addressing the near bankrupt highway trust fund.

“So yes, it’s tough,” he added. “And governing wasn’t necessarily made any easier by the election. And the president has now staked out some pretty bold set of positions in his budget last week. It’s going to be a difficult during the next few months. But I also think it gives the Republicans the opportunity, if they want to, to set up an ability to work out some compromises.”

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