GOP Dissent Over Boehner: A Sign of Trouble Ahead?

GOP Dissent Over Boehner: A Sign of Trouble Ahead?
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When two dozen House Republicans chose Tuesday not to support the re-election of their leader, key questions arose: Did the small but outspoken opposition to John Boehner signal a lack of party unity in support of the Republican agenda? And could that impede a conference that now holds its biggest majority in the lower chamber since the Great Depression, not to mention Republican control of the Senate for the first time in a decade?

Probably not, said one of those who voted against the Ohio congressman.

“I think we said to the American people who are so frustrated, we are listening to you,” North Carolina Rep. Walter Jones said after the vote, noting that the “cromnibus” spending and appropriations bill late last year “really ticked off the American people.”

Disapproval of Boehner was rooted in process and tactics. Members who voted against him complained about the chamber passing massive bills -- such as the budget measure -- in a small time window, and they were also unhappy that Boehner didn’t capitalize on perceived leverage to hold President Obama accountable for his executive actions.

But Jones doubted that Boehner received the message he and two dozen of his colleagues were trying to send. The 10-term congressman said the defections wouldn’t have a serious impact on the unity of the conference and how GOP leadership approaches legislation. “We were only 25,” he said. “If we had been 35, I would have said yes.”

House Republicans by and large are confident about keeping their caucus together, at least in the near term. The House plans to quickly take up several bills that leaders believe the majority of the conference supports, such as approval of the Keystone XL pipeline, a veterans jobs bill, and legislation to alter work hour requirements under the health care law. The House will also vote on repealing Obamacare, thus giving new members a chance to register opposition and make good on campaign pledges. Members are also looking forward to seeing their bills taken up by a Republican-led Senate.

But Tuesday’s defections could indicate coming tests on some significant, deadline-oriented matters before Congress.

“On the issues of governance … this could create some challenges,” said Pennsylvania Rep. Charlie Dent, considered a more moderate member of the GOP conference. “The real test will come on some of the harder [issues] of budgets, appropriations bills, continuing resolutions, and debt ceilings.”

The House will soon have to address one of those items, as the Department of Homeland Security runs out of money at the end of next month. Republicans had moved last year to only temporarily extend funding for the agency in order to chip away at the president’s executive order on immigration once the party had full control of Congress.

But while members say the expanded House majority puts Boehner in a stronger position, the party’s hold on the Senate is not filibuster-proof. The GOP will need a handful of Democratic support in the Senate to move on legislation. “It’s going to be, by necessity, bipartisan collaboration on these issues,” Dent said. “That’s going to happen in the Congress, because there’s no way these issues will get across the finish line any other way.”

GOP leaders are ready to move on now that Boehner’s status has been affirmed. “Today was a vote of shirts and skins -- this was a party vote,” said Texas Rep. Pete Sessions, chairman of the House Rules Committee. “We’re trying to get ready for a new session with a new Senate, with new leadership in the Senate that will take our bills, and we’re looking forward to it.”

Sessions said the GOP conference needs to work harder to sell bills to its own members and to the public. “We simply have to remind people what’s in the bill, why it was not so bad, and how we made progress,” he added, noting that Republicans have accomplished spending cuts through recent short-term funding measures.

“The president is the one who is already on the defensive and has already talked about getting out his veto pen before he’s even seen the legislation,” Sessions continued, referring to the White House’s veto threat Tuesday on Keystone legislation. “We will have a strong House and a strong Senate and a weak president moving forward.”

Still, Tuesday’s speakership election “stepped on our message, and made this the story” instead of Keystone, Obamacare votes and other agenda items, said Oklahoma Rep. Tom Cole, a well-known ally of Boehner’s. “I hope there’s some soul-searching,” he said of members who voted against the speaker. “There’s always consequences when you’re this far out of step with your own team, and you’re effectively tackling your own quarterback on game day.”

As to whether and how Tuesday’s events might affect the conference’s attempts to move agenda items, Cole said House Republicans are united in terms of principles and direction. “I think where we tend to divide is over tactics.”

Speaking for himself shortly after his re-election, Boehner sounded a hopeful tone in an address to a full House chamber. Prioritizing jobs and economic development, he also tried to temper skepticism about the new Congress and criticism that this session will be marked by greater divisions and gridlock.

“So let’s stand tall and prove the skeptics wrong,” he said. “Let’s make this a time of harvest.” 

Caitlin Huey-Burns is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at chueyburns@realclearpolitics.com. Follow her on Twitter @CHueyBurnsRCP.

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