Fissures are erupting between Republican Party leaders and the rank and file over whether to first advance the most ambitious goals — dismantling Obamacare and rolling back environmental rules — or focus on issues less likely to face a veto from President Barack Obama.
Those close to House leaders are signaling their priority will be more pragmatic initiatives over partisan fights, to show the party is capable of governing. These include repealing a medical-device tax enacted to help pay for Obamacare and granting Obama broader trade-negotiating authority.
“There’ll be plenty of people who will argue: Let’s keep pushing the president,” said Oklahoma Rep. Tom Cole, an ally of House Speaker John Boehner. “That’s a mistake. Before the American people will trust you with the presidency you have to prove you can run Congress.”
Rep. Tim Huelskamp, a lawmaker from Kansas aligned with the Republicans’ limited-government Tea Party wing, disagrees.
“No more excuses,” Huelskamp said in an interview. “We start with what most Republicans were talking about in their campaigns,” he said, citing the need for a more vigorous attempt to repeal the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA) — Obama’s health-care law.
Those opposing viewpoints “are the perfect microcosm of what’s to come,” said Nathan Gonzales, deputy editor at the nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report.
The new Republican-led Congress that bolstered its numbers in both the House and Senate has a six-month time frame starting in January before the 2016 presidential and congressional election campaigns take off. It will have numerous must-do items, such as raising the debt ceiling and passing a highway-funding bill.
That limited period will force leaders to set priorities between more partisan battles over Obamacare and spending cuts to popular entitlement programs, and the less-bold initiatives.
The lame-duck session before the new Congress starts in January could be a test of the pledges by both sides to collaborate as government funding runs out on Dec. 11.
McConnell said he spoke with Obama, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, a Tea Party favorite, about ways they could work together. In a news conference yesterday, Obama cited infrastructure programs, a revamp of the U.S. tax code and trade as areas of compromise.
While Republican leaders are intent on scoring legislative points right away, they must contend with members like Cruz, whose battle last year over defunding Obamacare culminated in a 16-day partial government shutdown.
Cruz will be getting some reinforcements in the Senate with the arrival of conservatives including Dan Sullivan of Alaska and Joni Ernst of Iowa, and his following among a coalition of outspoken U.S. House members remains strong.
Presidential politics will complicate Republican leaders’ job. Cruz and Senators Marco Rubio of Florida and Rand Paul of Kentucky are positioning themselves for White House runs, and their goal will be winning over conservative leaders and primary voters, not necessarily legislative compromise.
“It’s fraught with peril for the future,” said Olympia Snowe, a Maine Republican who retired from the Senate in 2013.
“Republicans are being given this one chance to reshape their image,” she said. “If they engage in partisan warfare, then the die is cast in terms of how Republicans are viewed. If they can’t recast the image of the Republican Party, this will be a very short-lived majority.”
Republican victories in Iowa and Colorado — states that twice voted for Obama — mean this election was an embrace of the party’s beliefs not just a backlash against the president, said former South Carolina Senator Jim DeMint.
“Virtually all of the Republicans ran on mainstream conservative ideas,” including repealing Obamacare, curbing immigration and opening federal lands to drilling, said DeMint, now president of the Heritage Foundation. “For the leadership to betray that is going to be problematic,” he said.
“Joni Ernst walks in and says she’s gonna ‘make em squeal,’” he said. “What she’s talking about is pushing” the leadership.
McConnell recognizes the difficulty of appeasing the Tea Party while trying to protect vulnerable Republicans who will be running in 2016 in Democratic-leaning states such as Pennsylvania and Illinois.
In a Fox News appearance before the election, he downplayed the chances of repealing the health-care law, urging Republicans to “remember who’s in the White House for two more years.”
After drawing fire from conservatives, McConnell’s office issued a statement reaffirming his commitment to undoing the law.
“They’re going to have to thread the needle between providing an opposition agenda to President Obama while showing what they can get done to prove they can govern,” said Ron Bonjean, who was an aide to former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott of Mississippi. “That’s going to be the difficult part.”
House leaders will grapple with the same dynamic.
Cole said his party’s priority should be repealing the medical-device tax, granting Obama fast-track trade-negotiating authority, approving the Keystone XL pipeline and replacing automatic spending cuts on domestic and defense programs.
Huelskamp said having a new Republican partner in the Senate warrants being bolder than that. He cited an Obamacare repeal and “regulatory overkill” as top targets.
Obama is sure to veto any such measures, something that isn’t lost on Republican leaders. “The House is going to send over one bad idea after another expecting the Senate just to deal with it,” said Jim Manley, a former top aide to Reid, a Nevada Democrat.
If the shutdown of 2013 is a guide, the rebellious wing of their party may force the hand of Republican leaders.
“Every time we had an idea, it was: I don’t think we can get Harry Reid to agree to that,” Huelskamp said. “That’s now all changed. I’m guessing there’s a few Republicans now nervous, thinking: Oh, my gosh, now it’s for real.”
Some Republicans say their party can accomplish two tasks – - serve up red meat for restive conservatives and do business with Democrats to pocket some legislative victories.
“Bold and readily achievable are not mutually exclusive,” said Sen. Mike Lee of Utah, a Tea Party-aligned Republican, said in an interview. “Where common ground exists we should move quickly on it.”