Republicans contemplating a run for the White House in 2016 must be thinking hard about what transpired on Capitol Hill this past week and what it says about the gap between winning their party’s nomination and winning a general election.
In recent years, Congress has come to symbolize dysfunctional government, an institution frozen in partisan disagreement and stymied, in particular, by conservative hard-liners. But last week’s events offered a somewhat different perspective, as House and Senate Republicans moved along divergent paths.
In the Senate, members of both parties were working constructively on immigration reform in the hope of producing a broader, bipartisan majority when the final vote is taken. Meanwhile, in the House, the Republican majority was melting down again, resulting in the rejection of a farm bill that had been expected to pass rather easily.
That development in the House has obvious implications for immigration legislation. The operating assumption among proponents of immigration reform has been that a sizable majority in the Senate would help assure a smoother ride in the House. Perhaps, but the farm bill’s setback puts that assumption in doubt. That’s the immediate issue — and the one that will play out for the rest of the year.
Looking further ahead, what happened this past week is a reminder of the potentially treacherous politics those seeking the Republican presidential nomination will face once their competition begins. Can they afford to suggest compromise, as some GOP senators are doing on immigration, or will that trigger a backlash among conservatives in the base — symbolized by House hard-liners — that could cost them the nomination?
The contrast between House and Senate Republicans should not be overstated.
Republicans in both chambers are divided between their tea party and more moderate-conservative wings, as Duke University political scientist David Rohde has pointed out. The demise of President Obama’s gun-control initiative came in the Senate, after all. And ongoing confirmation wars between Senate Republicans and the White House counter the notion that a new era of good feeling is emerging in the upper chamber.
But the composition of the House and Senate GOP caucuses is dissimilar. Tea party Republicans have a bigger share of the House caucus than the Senate’s, and according to Rohde’s analysis, the makeup of many of their districts has led to more “vehement conservatism and unwillingness to compromise” than is the case with some senators.
Immigration reform in the Senate offers a reminder that elections do have consequences, as Ira Shapiro, author of “The Last Great Senate,” said late last week in an e-mail message.
Republicans had hoped to win the White House and take back control of the Senate in 2012. Instead, they were frustrated on both fronts.
Some Republicans, particularly in the Senate, took two lessons from those defeats. One was that the party’s woeful performance among Hispanics required a new approach, beginning with immigration reform. The other was that obstructionism under all circumstances was not a winning strategy and that demonstrating a willingness to compromise at least some of the time would go a long way toward improving the party’s image among swing voters.
In the Senate, immigration reform has provided an opportunity for two-party cooperation — and leading Republicans seized it. The work began with the bipartisan Gang of Eight and continues now that the bill is on the Senate floor.
A pair of Republicans — Sens. Bob Corker (Tenn.) and John Hoeven (N.D.) — led the effort to draft an amendment to toughen the border security provisions in the hope of bringing along more of their colleagues. Democrats eager to round up as many Republican votes as possible worked to accommodate them.
Ross K. Baker of Rutgers University offered a reminder in an e-mail Friday that the founders intended the House and Senate to operate differently. Six-year terms give senators more leeway to stray from orthodoxy than do two-year terms.
Baker also pointed out that states are, by nature, more diverse in their makeup than individual districts of House members, with an often salutary effect on senators’ approach to legislating.
Additionally, many senators were growing weary of gridlock and of being part of an institution with such a poor image. And compromise is always more necessary in the Senate than in the House because of the rules of the two bodies.
The Senate remains stymied by partisan and philosophical differences on many issues. There have been no breakthroughs on budget and fiscal issues, for example. But the Senate approved its version of the farm bill on a 66 to 27 vote just a few weeks ago. And the progress it is making on immigration reform now has created hope that the bill could clear the Senate with something approaching 70 votes.
The House remains a different institution, one whose personality is still shaped by the 2010 midterm elections and the combativeness of the tea-party-inspired members who have come to Washington in the past two elections.
House Republicans lost seats last November but not their majority. They read the election returns differently than their counterparts elsewhere.
That resistance to compromise took over the dynamic in the House with the farm bill.
Rebellious Republicans dealt another embarrassment to Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) and Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.), who took the bill to the floor and saw it defeated because of significant conservative opposition and major resistance from the Democrats.
House GOP leaders blamed Democrats for failing to deliver promised votes, but outside conservative groups that had bitterly opposed the measure as a costly boondoggle — led by the Club for Growth and Heritage Action for America — claimed credit for helping to persuade roughly a quarter of the GOP conference to vote against it.
Which ethic will shape the 2016 Republican nominating process: the spirit that has infused the immigration debate in the Senate or the approach advocated by the House’s most conservative members and outside allies?
It’s obvious which one most influenced the 2012 race. Everyone in the field was pushed to the right to accommodate the influence of the tea party and other conservative forces, whether fueled by the grass roots or by big money. Mitt Romney played the game along with everyone else and paid a price in the general election.
The tensions the party’s 2016 candidate will face are already on the surface.
Some conservatives have pilloried Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) as naive for the leadership role he has taken on immigration reform. That’s just a precursor of the forthcoming struggle to define the Republican Party for national elections.
Last week’s events in the House and Senate were another big reminder of the challenges ahead.
For previous columns by Dan Balz,
go to postpolitics.com.