House GOP moves forward, but future not certain

Arkansas congressmen work to build cohesion, coalitions

Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) celebrates after he was elected House speaker early on Jan. 7, 2023, at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Jabin Botsford
Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) celebrates after he was elected House speaker early on Jan. 7, 2023, at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Jabin Botsford

WASHINGTON -- The Republican-controlled House of Representatives moved forward with unity during its first week of legislating, a stark contrast to the speakership battle at the start of the year that deadlocked the chamber.

House Republicans moved as a front last week to approve the chamber's rules package and pass conservative legislation, including policies to cut funds for hiring Internal Revenue Service agents and ensuring care to infants born after an abortion attempt. Resolutions to create a select committee to investigate America's competitiveness with China and to block oil from petroleum reserves from being sold to China even received bipartisan support.

Republicans additionally took strides in organizing committees, with the naming and approval of chairman seats, including Rep. Bruce Westerman of Hot Springs having the gavel on the House Natural Resources Committee.

The votes and committee organization were supposed to happen shortly after House members began the new Congress on Jan. 3 but were delayed as the chamber struggled to elect a speaker. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., won the speakership after a multi-day election -- the first since 1923 -- highlighted by the rift between most Republicans and a faction of ultra-conservative legislators.

"We're on the honeymoon," Rep. Steve Womack of Rogers told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette last week outside the House chamber.

"This marriage, if you will, this unity needs to persist for a couple of years. I think it's way too early to determine if this marriage is going to work out."

Republicans took control of the House from Democrats following the November midterm elections, albeit with 222 seats. The GOP can afford to lose only four members if the majority party wants to pass its "Commitment to America" legislative agenda, and even then there are slim chances the Democrat-controlled Senate will pass the proposals.

Heather Yates, an associate professor of political science at the University of Central Arkansas, said factions within the majority party were evident with the speakership battle and related compromises with the hard-right House Freedom Caucus. The agreements included language in the House rules package allowing any lawmaker to make a motion to vacate the chair and call for removing the speaker.

"Something that caught some attention, and maybe caught some people off guard, was how large of the pool of holdout votes really were," she said.

Five Republican lawmakers announced their opposition to McCarthy after a closed Republican conference vote in November. Rep. French Hill of Little Rock recognized the growth of the anti-McCarthy coalition during the Californian's speech to the Republican conference Jan. 3.

Hill and Westerman were part of the team that worked with McCarthy to secure a successful speaker nomination.

"When you have a narrow majority, it takes extra communication," Hill said in his Capitol Hill office.

"We're going to add those voices into the different decision-making bodies. We're going to make a real effort to make sure that we're communicating. That's a way to, I think, prevent misunderstandings going forward and to prepare for the legislative agenda as it starts to go to the committees now."

Rep. Rick Crawford of Jonesboro likened the speaker spat to a familial dispute, acknowledging most people "don't like to open the doors to family squabbles."

"Republicans are noted for being very individualistic and [with] diverse backgrounds," he said. "We have differences of opinion, and sometimes those differences of opinion spill out into the open."

The recent speaker election wasn't the first time in recent history a political party has had to deal with an internal bloc. The tea party movement led to a wave of newer and more conservative Republicans winning races in the 2010 midterm elections. Some of those lawmakers joined the House Freedom Caucus, which pushed Speaker John Boehner out of office in 2015.

"These splinter groups cause electoral headaches because they threaten sitting members of Congress and officeholders with primaries, and they're very successful with the electoral strategy," Yates said.

"The governing strategy here is really coming down to whether Speaker McCarthy is going to be able to piece together a coalition of support per bill. That's kind of how I see him possibly moving forward because, with the overall legislative agenda, it's going to be really hard to piece together a comprehensive coalition."

Yates said if McCarthy isn't interested in creating bipartisan coalitions -- something she described as "always the most effective way to go" -- the California Republican is going to have to rely on internal negotiations that change with each measure.

"That's where he is actually going to rely on his party leadership like [House Majority Leader] Steve Scalise and the whips," she said.

Two issues expected to cause problems for House Republicans involve spending. Conservatives want the next government funding measure to reduce spending to fiscal year 2022 levels. Congress will additionally have to reach a deal on the debt ceiling, with House Republicans wanting to curb spending as part of the solution.

An experienced House Appropriations Committee member, Womack has shared concerns about a possible cut to defense spending. He was one of nine House Republicans who supported the $1.7 trillion spending package at the end of the last Congress, which dedicated $858 billion for defense.

"If you're going to try to get to a [Fiscal Year 2022] budget level after we just ushered in the '23 omnibus, that means that somebody's going to get cut and it's going to be drastic," he said. "When it is, you will lose the other side and, likely, we will have members on our side that won't ever vote for a spending bill."

"I think we just guaranteed that if we do have difficulty moving legislation on our own in the House, we're going to be hopeful the Senate might be able to step in and lead the way," Womack added. "I never thought I would say that as a House member."

The split Congress is part of what Yates described as a new normal in the nation's capital. Congressional control has been split between the Republican and Democratic parties for eight years between 2001 and this year.

"We have a system that's already built upon the foundation of adversaries having to cooperate in order to get anything done, and within the last 10 years -- just because of the turn American politics has taken toward the negative -- it's made that process so much more harder," she said. "That is, unfortunately, something that the recent American voter has come to expect."

The Arkansas delegation understands what it takes to work in a split government. Crawford and Womack joined the House in 2011, while Hill and Westerman took office in 2015.

"It was difficult to maneuver, but we learned from those things," Crawford said about his first years on Capitol Hill. "I think the most important thing is to manage expectations -- what can we do, what can't we do -- and make sure the American people know what our limits are."

Yates said the speakership election provided reasons for voters to doubt the Republican Party's ability to govern. If Republicans want to "rehabilitate their image" for the 2024 election, she said, they need some legislative successes, which could include preventing a budget showdown.

"It is a very, very thin, tricky line that not just McCarthy has to walk, but other members of Congress," Yates said. "Every member of Congress does have some agency to keep the coalition together, but it is ultimately McCarthy's leadership that's going to telegraph which way that is going to go."

Westerman acknowledges the necessity of working with Democrats to pass shared objectives and address some issues.

"I don't want to just pass bills that we can get through a Republican majority on the House side; I want to pass bills that we can put on President Biden's desk," he said.

"I will continually work with Democrats here, and Democrats and obviously Republicans in the Senate on those bills we can get bipartisan and bicameral support."

The Senate has been out of session since members took the oath of office Jan. 3, and the House is not in session this week. Senators and House members will resume work in Washington, D.C. next week.

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