After what Senate majority Leader Mitch McConnell bragged was "a butt-kicking election," the GOP, which holds its most dominant position in Congress since 1929, has shot out of the gate. In its first week back in session, Congress pushed bills to greenlight the Keystone XL pipeline and to roll back taxpayer protections against Too Big to Fail banks. In one of the first votes whipped by Rep. Steve Scalise, the third-ranking Republican, who has apologized for his past association with white supremacists, the House passed a bill to reverse the president's executive immigration reforms, threatening millions with deportation.
Despite the party's newfound swagger, Republicans remain in a precarious position to actually govern the country. Bold strikes at Barack Obama's legacy initiatives — on health care, finance reform, immigration and the environment — are sure to be turned back by the president's veto pen. At best, Republicans will be able to wreak their damage in smaller doses — tacking toxic "riders" onto must-pass legislation, or, perhaps, drawing the president into bitter bargains that benefit corporate tax dodgers or erode big entitlement programs like Social Security.
Governing by a thousand cuts can do significant harm to Obama's place in history, and to the federal safety net. But this approach may not satisfy GOP hard-liners. "There's going to be a lot of pressure from the House to go big," says Jim Manley, a former top aide to Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid. "McConnell and John Boehner's whole goal in the next two years is to thread the needle," Manley adds, balancing the heat of House ambitions against the cold political calculus of the Senate "to get bills that can overcome the filibuster."
Danger signs are already flashing: The expanded House majority that many pundits expected would give Speaker Boehner room to maneuver around his party's fiery right flank may instead have flamed its insurgency. In January, more than two dozen House Republicans voted to strip Boehner of his gavel — the largest revolt against a sitting speaker since 1860. Boehner held on to power, but his control of his conference is in question. "That vote was the tip of the iceberg of Tea Party sentiment," insists Rep. Chris Van Hollen, the ranking Democrat on the House Budget Committee. "In terms of intensity, the House remains dominated by the Tea Party wing of the Republican Party."
The GOP has embarked on a treacherous transition from the "Party of No" to the party of "Oh, Yes, We Can." And its power players are shifting. Their ranks include committee chairs exercising their authority to reshape foreign policy, banking regulations and the tax code. Others are leaders by force of ideology, men who have galvanized the party around noxious ideas on immigration, global climate change or drug policy. They even include deal makers from the other side of the aisle, Democrats who seem more loyal to power than to the president.
Moving forward, the actions of eight individuals will determine whether the Republican majority can string together meaningful policy victories — or simply oversee the next round of political dysfunction in the Capitol.
Since the rise of the Tea Party, Wisconsin congressman Paul Ryan's policy proposals are one of the few things capable of unifying fractious Republicans. Apart from show votes to repeal Obamacare, the Ryan Budget — which would turn Medicare into a voucher program, eviscerate Medicaid for the poor and slash discretionary spending to less than half of Reagan-era levels — has been the one piece of legislation that could reliably clear the House.
The Ways and Means Committee is the chief tax-writing committee in the House, and Ryan is so juiced about his new post as chairman that he has already bowed out of a 2016 campaign for the White House. His ultimate goal is "comprehensive" tax reform — a full rewrite of the tax code, cutting tax rates for both individuals and businesses. For now, the gulf between Republicans and Democrats on individual rates is unbridgeable. So "full-throttle tax reform," as Ryan calls it, is off the table.
But Ryan, Senate Leader McConnell and even President Obama have voiced enthusiasm for rewriting the corporate-tax code. Corporate-tax reform has legs because it offers both Democrats and Republicans a chance to reward their parties' patrons — without tweaking parts of the tax code that hit voters in the pocketbook.
The gist of business-tax reform is to reduce the 35 percent tax rate by at least 10 percentage points, and then to offer multinationals the chance to bring home billions in offshore profits — paying a trivial tax rate in the single digits. Under Republican proposals, this "tax holiday" would, effectively, be made permanent.
Democrats and Republicans have stipulated that tax reform must be "revenue-neutral." But Republicans are notorious for accounting tricks that appear to balance the books during the 10-year term scored by the Congressional Budget Office — before producing hundreds of billions in deficits in later years.
Ryan — a skilled salesman with a gift for cloaking radical change under the guise of steady centrism — is setting the stage for audacious giveaways. He is insisting that the CBO adopt a new method, known as "dynamic scoring," for measuring the cost of tax legislation. Derided by many economists as magical thinking, dynamic scoring would make tax cuts appear to be less costly by factoring in projected economic growth resulting from the cuts. "With dynamic scoring," says a top House Democratic aide, "they're trying to make it look like tax cuts for the wealthy don't cost money." That's not an exaggeration. In 2001, the Heritage Foundation used the method to argue that the Bush tax cuts would grow the economy fast enough to retire the national debt by 2010. (When Bush left office, the U.S. was more than $10 trillion in debt.)
Rising to replace Ryan on the House Budget Committee — and setting his sights on Social Security — is Georgia Rep. Tom Price. A former orthopedic surgeon who represents the suburbs of Atlanta, Price is one of the most conservative men in Washington — the "embodiment" of the Tea Party, says one Democratic staffer: "He's someone who's always willing to appeal to the worst elements in society."
Price regularly expresses contempt for the president. In 2010, when the White House was negotiating with BP to create a $20 billion account to pay out damage claims from the Gulf oil spill, Price denounced Obama for his "Chicago-style shakedown politics." But Price is, ironically, one of the few GOP congressional leaders who might actually be in a position to strike a deal with the White House. In Obama's 2014 budget, the president proposed slicing benefits to future retirees by lowering Social Security's annual cost-of-living adjustment. "The president has shown his willingness to make substantial concessions," said Robert Greenstein of the left-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
If Price is serious about moving the needle on policy, and not just posturing for right-wing activists, he's now got the power to erode the Democrats' dearest entitlement program. Concessions would be required, of course. But Price may be the one GOP leader with sufficient Tea Party clout to frame that bargain with Obama as something other than a weak-kneed, centrist sellout.
Rep. Jeb Hensarling, whose district includes wealthy suburbs stretching east from Dallas, may be the most powerful congressman you've never heard of. As chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, he'll be the GOP's point man destroying the legislation Democrats passed to prevent a repeat of the 2008 crash. "Republicans are going to do their best to drive a stake through the heart of Dodd-Frank," says the House aide. "He's their leader on this."
A free-market fundamentalist, Hensarling has a far-right base. He formerly chaired the Republican Study Committee — then the most conservative caucus in Congress. And his quiet power is reflected in frequent scuttlebutt that he's a top candidate for speaker — whenever Boehner either steps down or is brought down.
Despite an establishment-Republican bloodline — he cut his teeth as an aide to Sen. Phil Gramm (R-Texas), who dismantled the Depression-era banking safeguards known as Glass-Steagall — Hensarling enjoys deep clout with the Tea Party for having bucked Boehner's leadership to stall passage of the September 2008 TARP bank bailout.
As his power has grown, however, Hensarling has emerged as a Wall Street darling. The top contributors to his 2014 re-election were JPMorgan and Goldman Sachs, and during his career he's taken more than $2 million in banking-industry cash.
Hensarling's hallmark is not overreach, but persistence. His strategy is clear: Keep pushing deregulation, confident that pieces of the GOP's pro-Wall Street agenda will get through — as happened with December's must-pass appropriations bill. The bill included a rider, authored by
Citigroup lobbyists, permitting big banks to again gamble on derivatives with taxpayer-insured deposits.
To open the new Congress, Hensarling steered a similar bill through the House, postponing enactment of the Volcker Rule, which would restrict speculation by Wall Street. Hensarling asked his countrymen to consider the "suffering" of American banks, adding, "The left aims their rhetoric at Wall Street, but they vote against Main Street and hardworking American families."
Rep. Steve King, an Iowa Tea Partier, should not be a man of congressional consequence. His official responsibilities are limited to seats on a smattering of subcommittees, including livestock and rural development. But King has transformed himself into the GOP's power broker in the immigration debate – ringleader of a caucus of between 50 and 70 House members who, he says, will "fight to the last drop of blood" to prevent America from normalizing its undocumented immigrants — or, as King calls them, "deportables."
"Steve King is the leader on immigration," says the Democratic aide. "He doesn't have that by rank or by title, but by the force of his ideas." In the last Congress, King's anti-immigrant gang struck such fear into Boehner that he refused to bring the Senate's immigration bill, passed by a whopping 68 votes, up for a vote in the House, although it would have passed easily with Democratic support.
The GOP's first salvo on immigration reflected King's hardcore ideology. The House advanced a Homeland Security funding bill with two amendments blocking Obama's executive actions on immigration — including not only Obama's recent executive amnesty, but also an earlier Obama initiative to save from deportation young Americans brought to this country without papers.
Why would the mainstream GOP, which needs to make inroads with Hispanic voters, treat King with anything but contempt? The congressman, who represents the northwest corner of Iowa, is a kingmaker with activists in the state that hosts the first-in-the-nation presidential caucuses. Leveraging this clout, King can summon even moderate presidential hopefuls to kiss his ring. His January "Iowa Freedom Summit" drew speaking commitments from 2016 hopefuls including current and former governors Scott Walker, Chris Christie, Rick Perry and Mike Huckabee, as well as Sen. Ted Cruz, Tea Party darling Ben Carson and even long-shot former Hewlett-Packard exec Carly Fiorina.
Since the GOP seized the House in 2010, Congress has legislated by crisis — pressing up against potentially catastrophic deadlines, before jamming through ugly megadeals in the dark of night. The clearest way for the GOP to sidestep an Obama veto and advance its agenda is for legislators to tack riders onto such must-pass legislation. Riders can be used strategically to advance broad party goals. Or, as Maryland Rep. Andy Harris proved with last December's "Cromnibus" bill, they can shove one man's ideology down American throats.
Harris, Maryland's lone Republican representative, acts like a one-man vice squad. As a state legislator, he once tried to defund the University of Maryland after students scheduled a showing of an X-rated movie. ("Pornography isn't fun," he said. "It's evil.") With his seat on the influential House Appropriations Committee, Harris single-handedly attempted to overturn the will of Washington, D.C., voters, 65 percent of whom had endorsed a November ballot initiative to legalize marijuana. Just before Christmas, Harris attached a rider to the massive spending bill, blocking the district from "enacting" new measures to liberalize marijuana law, claiming that noncriminal weed would "create legal chaos" in the district.
Ironically, that's exactly what Harris' rider has engendered. D.C.'s new attorney general believes that the district can carry out legalization (which he argues was already "enacted" by voters). And the district is now playing chicken with Congress. In January, the city council took steps to push legalization forward – daring Congress to file a lawsuit based on the Harris rider.
While much of the GOP now runs away from the neocon interventionism of the Bush years, the party has, ironically, put back into power a man desperate to confront global hot spots with American military might. Sen. John McCain has been slotted into one of the most powerful chairmanships in the Senate, heading up the Armed Services Committee. McCain's chairmanship could cost American taxpayers dearly. The senator is vowing to roll back the budget constraints of "sequestration" at the Pentagon — ending austerity in the only place it ever made sense.
McCain is also committed to reviving the interventionist wing of the Republican Party by ratcheting up pressure on Obama to undertake more bellicose responses to ISIS, Russian aggression and the nuclear ambitions of Iran. McCain can't overrule the president's decisions as commander in chief, of course. But he can position himself as a back-seat driver of U.S. foreign policy — for example, by calling hearings with hawkish generals who will insist that Obama's strategy to defeat ISIS cannot succeed without boots on the ground, or that Vladimir Putin's incursions must be met, not only by tough sanctions, but also by arming Ukrainians to the teeth.
Global warming is shaping up, perhaps, as the biggest battle of the next two years. President Obama is determined to secure a legacy of action on climate change, while the Republican Party, beholden to Big Oil, is determined to reverse any forward progress. On this issue, there's no reasonable compromise to be brokered — it's a zero-sum game.
The new Environment and Public Works Committee chairman, Oklahoma Republican James Mountain Inhofe, literally wrote the book on climate denial — his 2012 tome is titled The Greatest Hoax: How the Global Warming Conspiracy Threatens Your Future. Inhofe believes that climate science is a scam, designed to cheat humanity out of the fossil fuels endowed by God above.
As committee chairman, he will badger, interrogate and even subpoena Obama officials in an effort to derail the administration's many pending environmental regulations — including rules to curb down-wind power-plant pollution, regulate mercury and methane emissions, slash smog-producing ozone and, of course, the EPA's proposed new limits on carbon emissions from power plants.
But Inhofe is more than a formidable attack dog. He also has leverage over the White House. With oversight of Public Works, Inhofe holds the keys to massive infrastructure investments like the highway bill. And the senator knows how to cut a deal. Even though tax hikes are verboten in the GOP, Inhofe has signaled that he could be persuaded to hike the gas tax — inventively rebranded as a "user fee" — that funds highway improvements. But he'll extract a price. Inhofe will likely force the White House, desperate for job-creating, economy-stimulating infrastructure projects in advance of the 2016 election, to eat a few riders that strip away at environmental protection. Indeed, Inhofe has a history of such legislative shenanigans, once using a highway rider to block federal environmental oversight of American Indian lands in Oklahoma.
West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin may still have a D by his name, but after Republicans seized power in the Senate, Manchin bragged he wouldn't walk in "lockstep" with Democrats and sounded happy to build McConnell's governing majority: On "legislation which I think will really help the country, and benefit my state," he has said, "I'm going to be right there with them."
Out of the gates in January, Manchin stood as the top Democratic co-sponsor of the bill to approve the Keystone XL pipeline. Manchin even bragged that he would help lead an override of Obama's threatened veto of the tar-sands pipeline — "we could have 67, 70, 75 votes." Manchin is not a climate denier — he just governs like one. As a senator from West Virginia, Manchin has a deep parochial interest in coal. He's also accepted more than $1 million in campaign cash from mining interests and electric utilities. He joked recently that the EPA and the IRS are "about the same" — and blasted the Obama White House's environmental "overreach."
Manchin also seems eager to abet GOP efforts to pare back Obamacare. He's one of two Democrats who signed on to legislation that would allow employers to refuse health care coverage to nearly-full-time employees — those working between 30 and 40 hours a week.
What's Manchin's motivation? After the wipeout of red-state Democrats in the last election, Manchin may be plotting another run for governor of West Virginia, a job he held from 2005 to 2010. An alternate explanation is that Manchin — who has bemoaned his Senate tenure as the least productive time in his life — has been seduced by the notion that a centrist bloc in the Senate can wield exceptional power and put points on the board. "It's a once-every-four-years idea — that a moderate gang is going to seize control of the Senate agenda," says Manley, the former Senate-leadership aide. "It never works out," he insists. "In the end, a moderate on Capitol Hill is just roadkill."