Politics & Policy

A Lame-Duck Showdown in the House Looms

Kevin McCarthy (Alex Wong/Getty Images)
GOP leadership’s proposal for the lame-duck session has conservatives unhappy.

House majority leader Kevin McCarthy (R., Calif.) unnerved Congress’s conservative rank-and-file with the agenda he revealed last week, to the point that they are already looking to undermine his plans for the lame-duck session.

Congressional sources say that McCarthy’s stated desire to pass a long-term government-funding bill in the lame-duck session, coupled with a focus on small-ball legislative priorities favored by business interests, suggests that Republican leaders haven’t learned the right lessons from the defeat of McCarthy’s precedessor, Eric Cantor.

As to what form that resistance might take, Ohio lawmaker Jim Jordan could emerge as a key figure in the conservative effort to pressure leadership, but the right flank’s tactics will depend on how Tuesday’s elections shake out. “Jordan will be one guy, but I think you’re already seeing other pockets of people meet up, and that will intensify after the election is over,” a House Republican speaking on the condition of anonymity tells National Review Online.

Tea-party lawmakers hoped that Cantor’s surprise defeat at the hands of Dave Brat, a political unknown who campaigned against comprehensive immigration reform and crony capitalism, would motivate new leaders to orient the party around more-conservative policy goals. To ensure that outcome, some conservatives urged Jordan to challenge McCarthy during the summer, but he declined.

Jordan, who hopes to lead the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, is not planning a coup. Still, McCarthy’s goal of passing a continuing resolution that would fund government through the end of the fiscal year, which he disclosed in a lengthy interview with Politico, has even allies skeptical.

“I have great faith in Kevin McCarthy’s strategic judgment, but in my own view, we should leave long-term policy for the incoming Congress that has just been approved by the voters,” Representative Tom McClintock, who served with McCarthy in the California legislature, says. 

Congress must pass some sort of CR during the lame-duck session because the government runs out of money on December 11, but a short-term funding measure would defer the heavy lifting to next year, when Republicans could control the House and the Senate.

“[McCarthy] has rightfully gained the confidence of the body and we have to give him the chance to perform, but we also reserve the right to object,” Utah representative Jason Chaffetz (a rival of Jordan’s for the oversight chairmanship) says. “The longer a continuing resolution is, the harder it will be to pass.”

If Congress passes a long-term CR, critics point out, Republicans would lose the fiscal leverage they might otherwise have to block an agenda they’ve decried throughout the midterm season.

“I think the real question about all of this is, will Republicans govern the way they’ve campaigned?” asks Heritage Action spokesman Dan Holler.

A couple points where Republicans could use funding leverage: the president’s expected executive orders on immigration and new carbon-emissions rules coming out of the Environmental Protection Agency.

“It’s not shutdown politics, because there are lots of aspects of government we can easily fund,” a GOP congressman says. They can fund the Defense Department and the Department of Veterans Affairs, for instance, through the regular appropriations process. 

“Then if you have a side skirmish about [the Department of Homeland Security’s] appropriations bill, you’re not looking at a government-wide shutdown,” the lawmaker says. “You’re looking at, potentially, some problems with DHS if Obama vetoes it, but I think that’s much different.” 

If Republicans surrender that power in favor of “prov[ing] we could govern,” as McCarthy put it, conservatives fear that leadership will fail to take advantage of their newfound control of the Senate and instead buckle to Democratic demands.

Petty acts of control, such as refusing to release the dates for new-member orientation in order to thwart the Heritage Foundation’s plans for parallel meetings with incoming freshmen, only heightens the rank-and-file’s distrust for leadership.

It doesn’t help that the policy priorities most often discussed by Republican leaders in the House and Senate — repealing of Obamacare’s medical-device tax; authorizing the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline — hardly advance beyond the agenda that House Republicans have pursued in the absence of a Senate majority, which many Republicans hope to regain in Tuesday’s elections.

“If your goal is just to avoid conflict at all costs, then the question is: What’s the point of having our majority?” the congressman asks.

Furthermore, the agenda remains dominated by special interests, the conservatives allege, even when it comes to Obamacare.

“Most of the things they’re talking about are simpatico with K Street,” the House Republican said, referring to the possibilities of repealing the medical-device-tax and loosening or eliminating the law’s employer mandate. Business lobbyists support those repeal efforts, but oppose, for instance, repealing the law’s “risk corridors” that could protect health-insurance companies from losses. Republicans ought to go after risk corridors anyway, the lawmaker says.

Conservative purity tests, however, have tripped up the party in Congress in recent years. When the Bush tax cuts were expiring at the end of 2012, for instance, House speaker John Boehner offered a plan to extend them on all income under $1 million. A group of Republicans, however, refused to vote for anything that could be construed as a tax hike, and the bill never made it to the floor. In the final deal, taxes went up on individuals making $400,000 or more. While it’s unclear if the president and Senate Democrats would have accepted the Boehner plan, the party missed a chance to make a palatable offer.

Chaffetz believes that McCarthy’s strategy leaves plenty of room for conservatives, even on the immigration issue.

“It doesn’t mean we have to pass bills that are so centrist that our base is up in arms,” he says, citing, for example, his bill lifting caps on visas for high-skilled laborers and families. The legislation passed the House in 2011 with 389 votes. “There are some legitimate issues that would be good bipartisan issues.”

Before that can happen, though, Republican leadership and the conference’s right flank will have to get on the same page. The lame-duck session and the need to pass a CR sets up the first major test for House whip Steve Scalise, who won his post by promising to make leadership more responsive to the conservative base. He earned praise from the rank-and-file for his help in negotiating a border-crisis package that did pass the House, albeit a bit late. He’ll risk losing some of that goodwill if can’t convince leadership to pursue a short-term funding measure.

“It would undermine confidence in him,” the lawmaker said. “If he’s not coming with a little bit more strength to the table and just yessing what McCarthy has put out so far, I think there’ll be a lot of disappointment.”

Disappointment, and perhaps some newfound prominence for Jim Jordan. 

— Joel Gehrke is a political reporter for National Review Online.

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