By Shailagh Murray and Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, November 18, 2006
House Republicans overwhelmingly elected Reps. John A. Boehner (Ohio) and Roy Blunt (Mo.) yesterday to lead their minority team, opting for experience over ideology as the GOP adjusts to a challenging new world on the outskirts of congressional power.
The results marked a setback for conservative activists who tried to wrest control of the party by arguing that it had lost its ideological moorings and that voters had signaled they wanted Republicans to renew the energetic, activist style that swept them to power in 1994. Rep. Mike Pence (Ind.), an up-and-coming conservative leader who challenged Boehner for the minority leader's job, received 27 votes to Boehner's 168. Rep. John Shadegg (Ariz.), another conservative activist, vying against Blunt for minority whip, lost 137 to 57.
As House and Senate Republicans prepare for a return to minority status after their loss to the Democrats on Nov. 7, they have chosen tactical skills over salesmanship in picking their leaders this week.
Rather than retooling political concepts, GOP strategists say, they will focus on strategies that will promote their agenda of making tax cuts permanent, appointing conservatives to the federal bench and making select spending cuts, while trying to foil many of the Democrats' domestic proposals, to the extent that the Republicans' new status allows.
The transition from majority to minority may be particularly difficult in the House, where the GOP has held power for 12 consecutive years. While the faces of the House Republican leadership will remain largely the same, absent departing Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (Ill.), the challenges of operating as a minority party will be far different.
Veteran lawmakers say an effective majority conceives and executes a legislative agenda, while an effective minority exploits the majority's weaknesses, derails its efforts and lays blame at its feet, all while building a case for taking back control in the next election.
Blunt acknowledged that the House Republican focus will narrow in the 110th Congress, which convenes in January. One pillar of the GOP's new strategy: peeling off more conservative Democrats who may be uncomfortable with some of their party's more progressive initiatives on social and budget-related issues. "We'll work each day to give those Democrats a viable alternative," Blunt vowed.
In the House, the minority can be a desolate place. Democrats will control virtually all aspects of floor debate, from setting time limits to determining which amendments are considered. Steve Elmendorf, a longtime senior aide to former Democratic leader Richard A. Gephardt (Mo.), predicted that Republican rank-and-file members will struggle with conflicting loyalties: doing right by their constituents, who may support certain Democratic initiatives, vs. making the Republican Party look good by not giving the opposition an inch.
"You have to work with Democrats to look like you're accomplishing things," said Elmendorf, now a lobbyist. On the other hand, he added, discipline is key to winning elections. "It makes the leadership job much harder," Elmendorf said.
In the Senate, the opposition will hold tremendous sway because the Democrats will hold a slender majority. In a surprise move this week, Republicans elevated one of their most seasoned legislators, Sen. Trent Lott (Miss.), to the No. 2 post of minority whip. Party leaders have begun circulating a three-page handout titled "Rights and Tools of the Minority in the Senate," laying out parliamentary devices such as "divisible amendments" and "out of scope motions" for throwing the Democrats off their game.
"After all, even though the electorate may have voted for change, they didn't repeal the Constitution," said Eric Ueland, chief of staff to outgoing Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (Tenn). It takes 60 votes to get almost any bill through the Senate, he noted, "and a veto override is nearly impossible in this situation." The Democrats will control 51 seats, to 49 for the Republicans.
One internal force that could thwart GOP obstructionism is a smaller but outspoken group of moderates. Survivors of the election, including Rep. Christopher Shays (Conn.), blame the defeats of moderate Rep. Jim Leach (Iowa) and Sen. Lincoln D. Chafee (R.I.) in part on Republican leaders' unwillingness to challenge President Bush on many major issues, including the war in Iraq.
"That turned out to be bad for the White House and bad for us," said Shays, who singled out Hastert as a main culprit.
Some House Republicans may try to outflank the Democratic leadership by joining with moderate-to-conservative Democrats in the "Blue Dog" caucus to form a center-right coalition, according to Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.).
"The Blue Dog Democrats are going to have to defend the platform they ran on -- pro-life, small government, the like," Kingston said. "And we will have free agents within our own ranks. We're not going to have Roy Blunt coming up, saying, 'We really need you. We're within three votes of passing this bill.' We can do whatever we want."
Some Republicans seemed content to cede the legislative field to the Democrats and appeal to 2008 voters with their ideas, not their accomplishments.
"We will be out of the legislation business starting January 1," said Rep. Michael Burgess (Tex.). "We will have to win the argument. We have to be prepared to win the argument with the Democrats every day, even if they have the votes."
Former majority leader Richard K. Armey (Tex.), a member of the Republican House leadership that took power after the 1994 electoral landslide, counseled Republicans against striking too negative a posture. He urged his party to seek to recapture the optimistic, happy face of conservatism embodied by Ronald Reagan and to stress limited government.
"Let's go about this with resolve, but let's also go about it with a good disposition," he said.