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.