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.