Are we witnessing the emergence of what might be called a new “sanity caucus” among House Republicans?
This month, 26 of them voted against an amendment to undo President Obama’s program to shield so-called dreamers from deportation.
This week, House leaders were forced to pull an antiabortion bill after a different but similarly sized group balked at provisions in a measure to ban late-term abortions.
To be sure, this is, to rephrase Daniel Patrick Moynihan, defining sanity down.
On the immigration bill, despite the moderates’ revolt, the amendment to repeal Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program passed, albeit by the narrowest possible margin. Meantime, a comfortable majority voted to block Obama’s more recent immigration actions.
Similarly, on the abortion measure, the dispute was not over the substance of the bill, which would ban almost all abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy — in clear violation of Supreme Court precedent. Rather, the controversy was over the rape exception and the requirement that such assaults be reported to police.
In other words, sanity is relative, and no doubt politically inspired by the desire not to offend voting blocs (Hispanics, women). Still, the episodes represent a surprising — and welcome — departure from turmoil-as-usual in the House, with tea party conservatives erupting against what they view as ideological perfidy from Republican leaders.
From the inside, this looks less like House Republicans getting their act together than Keystone Kops leadership and a rambunctious caucus.
“Week 1, we had the vote for the speaker,” said Rep. Charlie Dent, a centrist Pennsylvania Republican, referring to the unexpectedly large conservative insurrection against reelecting John Boehner. “Week 2, we debated deporting children. Week 3, we’re debating rape and incest. I just can’t wait for Week 4.”
Indeed, Weeks 5 and 6 could be interesting, too. Boehner has a bolstered majority this Congress, giving him more leeway to take positions that alienate his most strident members. With the Senate in Republican hands, the House could be in the position of passing bills that could be signed into law, not lobbing futile protest votes over to the Senate to die.
At the same time, the 60-vote hurdle to avert a filibuster in the Senate remains staggeringly high. Even higher is the two-thirds majority needed to overturn a presidential veto. Boehner has the dealmaker’s urge to get results and not simply oversee protest votes and avert shutdown disasters.
His Senate counterpart, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, has even greater incentive to show voters that Republicans are capable of governing; 24 of his members are up for reelection in two years, a presidential cycle that could favor Democrats.
The opening salvos between the Republican Congress and the Democratic White House are inevitably going to make things look as if gridlock is the only possible outcome; Republicans pass a measure obviously unacceptable to the White House; the president hurls back a veto threat; House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi’s dwindling band of Democrats stands united against allowing Republicans to override.
The tantalizing question is what happens next in this legislative tango, as reality dawns that majority power has its limitations. So the House sends the Homeland Security funding bill to the Senate, where, under the ticking clock of funding expiring in late February, its most odious immigration provisions will be removed.
The recent moderate Republican rumblings could — underline, could — presage greater rationality. “This is not yet a group,” one Republican congressman told me when I broached the notion of an emerging “sanity caucus.” Still, he said, “I think it does show people the Republican conference is more diverse than the common perception of it, and the leadership is trying to manage it.”
Elaine Kamarck of the Brookings Institution identified 51 House members she describes as “Obama Republicans” — lawmakers from congressional districts that Obama won in 2012 or that Mitt Romney won by fewer than five percentage points.
Examining their campaign positions, she found striking differences both in emphasis and in substance between this group and their counterparts on hot-button issues such as immigration, same-sex marriage and climate change.
“On issues like tax reform and regulation of business, the Obama Republicans could be just what Boehner needs to create a majority on a compromise with the Democrats while allowing his tea party supporters to defect,” Kamarck observed.
To be determined. But we may just be seeing green shoots of what passes for sanity in the nation’s capital.