Shortly after America’s Republican Party trounced the Democrats and gained control of the Senate in last November’s midterm congressional elections, Mitch McConnell, the new Senate majority leader, appealed to his colleagues not to be “scary,” but to be “positive” and effective. This has proved very difficult.
McConnell’s strategy is typically farsighted. He knows that, if the Republicans are to win back the presidency in 2016, they must prove their ability to govern responsibly. He also recognizes that the Republicans would otherwise find it much more difficult to hold onto the Senate in the next election, when more swing-state seats are in play. And he is aware that public approval of Congress has fallen to the mid-teens ― nearly an all-time low.
With this in mind, McConnell decided that continuing to block President Barack Obama’s initiatives, as the Republicans had done during the previous six years, could no longer work. So he promised that his party would try to compromise on a few issues, and offered an explicit pledge that there would be no government shutdowns like the highly unpopular one in 2013. And he schemed to make Obama the “negative” one by regularly sending him bills that he would be forced to veto.
But the strategy has been tough to execute ― partly because Congress’ staunchest conservatives, such as Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas and his Tea Party-affiliated allies, refuse to be tamed. In fact, the Tea Party candidates who swept into Congress in 2010 campaigned on a pledge never to compromise ― even, apparently, if it means opposing their own party members, such as House Speaker John Boehner, whom they view as too amenable to bipartisanship. This refusal to compromise has put the Republican Party in a pickle.
Meanwhile, many Democrats view their new minority status as a source of relief, as it has removed the pressure to deliver results or obey their party’s leaders. Even Obama seems to feel liberated, proposing popular programs ― for example, free tuition at two-year community colleges and a minimum-wage increase ― that he knows the Republicans will reject, thereby upholding their reputation as the “party of no.”
The ideological divide between Republicans and Democrats is deeper than ever. The Republicans eschew anything that enhances the role of the federal government, unless they consider it to be essential to national security (the party of personal liberty supports warrantless wiretapping, for example). The Democrats, by contrast, support a more active federal role in setting national standards and ensuring that the benefits of public programs are distributed fairly.
The Tea Party’s rise exacerbated this split. Though the movement’s ranks have thinned somewhat, its adherents continue to exert considerable influence in Congress. It has powerful and well-funded backers, including the billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch. And, after some successful challenges by Tea Party members, Republican incumbents have moved steadily rightward. Some Republican strategists say that even Ronald Reagan could not be nominated by today’s Republicans.
To be sure, now that the Democrats are the minority in both congressional chambers, they have turned to tactics ― like Senate filibusters and amendments that would be politically costly to oppose ― previously favored by Republicans. But the Democrats’ efforts ― say, to force a vote on an amendment designating climate change a human-induced phenomenon ― pale in comparison to past Republican manipulations, such as the addition of antiabortion provisions to entirely unrelated bills.
Despite the desire of party leaders to boost trust in a Republican-led government, many Republicans care little about the effect of their behavior on their party’s prospects of winning back the White House. Indeed, the party’s agenda remains laden with proposals to reverse or overturn Obama’s achievements.
In the new Congress’ first couple of weeks, the House passed a bill scaling back the Dodd-Frank financial reform act. Numerous proposals are pending to undo significant parts of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, Obama’s signature health-insurance program (if the Supreme Court does not do the job later this year).
Moreover, the Senate spent weeks on a bill to force Obama to approve the Keystone XL pipeline, a 1,800-kilometer conduit to carry oil from Canada’s tar sands to the US for refinement and export. Obama has, as promised, vetoed the bill, owing to the pipeline’s adverse environmental implications. Though it will be difficult to marshal the two-thirds House and Senate majorities needed to override a presidential veto, the Republicans will seek to capitalize politically by portraying Democrats who oppose the pipeline as effete elitists who do not care about jobs or national security.
But it is the House Republicans’ move to overturn Obama’s executive actions on immigration reform ― which would shield as many as five million undocumented immigrants from deportation ― that has turned into the biggest headache for party leaders. They know that in 2016, the party will need more Hispanic votes than it received in 2012. In this sense, the recent ruling by a federal judge in Texas halting the order’s implementation ― a decision that the Obama administration is appealing ― does not help the Republicans, however joyous anti-immigration forces may be.
Likewise, House Republicans set a trap for their party last December, by demanding that funding of the Department of Homeland Security be separated from legislation funding all other government agencies, so that the anti-immigration legislation could be attached to it.
But, as should have been expected, the Senate ― which adopted a bipartisan immigration bill in 2013 ― would not accept the anti-immigration baggage. The Republicans’ inability to control their House faction has exposed them to responsibility for a DHS shutdown at a time of increased terror threats. To break the impasse, McConnell has proposed addressing the issues in separate bills.
In their first couple of months dominating Congress, the Republicans have passed no major legislation; taken largely negative positions; and may be about to impede the operation of a crucial government department. This is exactly where McConnell and other national leaders did not want their party to be.
By Elizabeth Drew
Elizabeth Drew is the author, most recently, of “Washington Journal: Reporting Watergate and Richard Nixon’s Downfall.” ― Ed.