In the new year, Republicans will hold a majority in the House of Representatives. They will have the opportunity to set the chamber’s agenda, conduct oversight of the White House and amplify their platform in the run-up to the 2024 presidential election.
That’s the good news for the G.O.P. The bad news is that Democrats will still hold the presidency and control of the Senate. Also, with the new Congress in January, there will be no more than 222 Republicans in the chamber, just four more than a bare majority.
A narrow majority is not in itself sufficient to cripple a majority party. In the past two years, Democrats in the House and Senate proved that.
But House Republicans face low odds of success because of a triple threat: a fragile majority, factional divisions and untested leadership. Still, there are steps that party leaders should take to improve their chances of avoiding a partisan circus and perhaps even preside over a productive two years in power — and real risks if they defer instead to extremists in their ranks.
The House Freedom Caucus, an assertive faction of 40-odd lawmakers, includes the likes of Jim Jordan of Ohio, Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia and Lauren Boebert of Colorado. Generally, the caucus embraces confrontation over compromise, is disdainful of party loyalty — which extends to the selection of its leaders — and has a track record of killing its party’s own bills. In a slim majority, it holds greater leverage over any legislation.
Kevin McCarthy has made assiduous efforts to court the caucus over the past few years to become speaker, yet the caucus members’ skepticism of him in that role remains: In a recent vote for the party’s nominee for speaker, over 30 Republicans voted against him, and at least five conservatives have said that they will oppose him when the full House votes for its next speaker in January. That is more than enough to deny him the speakership, since the nominee must get a majority of the entire House, and no Democrat is expected to vote for Mr. McCarthy.
This makes Mr. McCarthy vulnerable. Freedom Caucus members are making demands that could ultimately be fatal to any hope of Republican success in the House. They want rules changes that, among other things, would weaken the speakership by making bipartisan coalitions harder to build, allowing only bills supported by a majority of the G.O.P. to come to the floor. Such a rule would constrain the speaker’s agenda-setting power and make it extremely hard to pass much-needed legislation unpopular with Republicans, like raising the debt ceiling.
Mr. McCarthy should not empower the Freedom Caucus at the expense of his own influence. Yes, he has to navigate a delicate path. But if he is elected speaker but gives away the store in the process, it will be a Pyrrhic victory.
At the moment, he seems inclined to give away the store. By not refusing caucus demands, he has most likely put himself along a troubled path similar to those of his predecessors Newt Gingrich and John Boehner. Mr. McCarthy has vowed to block an increase in the debt limit unless Democrats agree to spending cuts and suggested that the Homeland Security secretary, Alejandro Mayorkas, could face impeachment.
These ill-conceived pledges create false hopes among Republican lawmakers and voters of what the party can accomplish. It’s true that in seeking the speakership, Mr. McCarthy cannot simply ignore the Freedom Caucus, since it commands more than enough votes to torpedo his quest for speaker and any partisan Republican bill in the next Congress.
But political power comes in part from perceptions. If Mr. McCarthy surrenders too much to the caucus, it will reinforce the impression that he is less a leader than a follower and erode the clout he will need to lobby lawmakers on tough votes.
Furthermore, if as speaker he consistently defers to the Freedom Caucus, he risks alienating more moderate or swing-district Republicans (or both). Only a handful of these lawmakers would need to cross party lines in order for the minority party to get its way.
Republicans have made it clear that we should expect a buzz of activity in oversight hearings and committee-led investigations — possibly of elements of the F.B.I. and the Justice Department and a heavy dose of Hunter Biden.
Republican leaders can avoid making Congress look like a space exclusively for partisan show trials by being flexible in their agenda and seeking out majorities wherever they can find them. That could include partisan measures from the party’s Commitment to America platform, like funding for the police as well as some symbolic, non-consequential legislation that will please the party’s base. (Think resolutions that declare lawmaker opposition to “woke” teaching and illegal immigration.)
The G.O.P. might also try to pursue bipartisan legislation in areas like health or family care, since securing the votes of minority-party members on bills can make up for any defections within their own ranks. Bipartisan bills also have at least a plausible chance of getting the approval of the Democratic-led Senate and White House that they will need to become law.
When it comes to bills that the House must pass, like appropriations and an increase in the debt ceiling, Mr. McCarthy might have to follow in the footsteps of Speaker Boehner, who let party conservatives resist the passage of such measures until, facing economic catastrophe, he deferred to Republican moderates to pass them with Democrats.
None of these strategies is a guarantee of success. And with such a slim majority, there is also the possibility, if remote, that the Republican Party loses power altogether because a few of its members resign or die in office or one or more members leave the party. In 1930, enough of the G.O.P.’s lawmakers passed away and were replaced by Democrats in special elections that the party was robbed of its majority.
In 2001, Senate Republicans failed to heed the warnings of Senator Jim Jeffords of Vermont that he would leave the Republican Party. When he did, control of the Senate flipped to Democrats.
Even if Republicans don’t lose power this way, the conditions are far from ideal for House Republicans to take advantage of being a governing party. Don’t be surprised if the next two years in the House of Representatives are more soap opera than substance.
But if the party remains in charge in the House and can assuage its right flank, its leaders should take steps to temper expectations, protect their authority and be open to working with Democrats if they hope to build a record of legislative success in what will be a challenging political environment.
Matthew N. Green is a professor of politics at Catholic University, a co-author of “Newt Gingrich: The Rise and Fall of a Party Entrepreneur” and the author of “Legislative Hardball.”
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