We’ve known since it entered power that the House Republican majority—or at least a substantial portion of it—is utterly averse to compromise. And—as evidenced by a 2013 survey from the liberal-leaning Democracy Corps—we’ve also known that this majority is most responsive to a rigid base of older conservative whites, who fear demographic change and everything it represents.
None of this has changed. If, as projected, Republicans win the Senate on Nov. 4, they will do so on the strength of majorities in conservative to moderate states like Iowa, Arkansas, Louisiana, Alaska, Colorado, and New Hampshire. And overwhelmingly, they’ll rely on older whites, who vote at higher rates than younger voters and minorities. Republican candidates like Joni Ernst in Iowa and Cory Gardner in Colorado might have moderate affects, but their core support comes from the most conservative parts of their respective electorates.
You should keep all of this in mind as you read recent takes on the prospective Republican majority in Politico. First, Jake Sherman previews the plan from House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, who wants to unite the House and the Senate with a “muscular” agenda of policy and government reform:
Energy policy will be a priority, in addition to repealing the medical device tax and the independent payment board for Medicare—bills that Democrats have mostly ignored over the past few years. Highway spending will likely come up, McCarthy said, and it could be funded by new drilling on public lands. […]
One of his chief goals is to rework the federal bureaucracy. In his travel throughout more than 100 congressional districts, McCarthy says he has sensed a great distrust in the federal government. He says voters are frustrated with Obama’s handling of Ebola, the health care law, the IRS and Secret Service scandals. And that’s why he is setting up a congressional mechanism to whittle away at inefficiencies that plague the government. He likens his plans to the commission that shut down underused military bases.
Likewise, explains Edward-Isaac Dovere in a related piece for Politico, the White House hopes that it can build a productive relationship with a Republican-controlled Congress, given the shape of the 2016 electoral map and the large number of GOP incumbents up for re-election in Democratic-leaning states during a presidential year:
Those senators, goes one thought circulating the West Wing, would be under pressure to move towards the middle and be the bridge to larger deals with a caucus eager to show it can get things done.
Aides are discussing potential areas for agreement: tax reform, infrastructure, sentencing reform, renewing unemployment insurance, raising the minimum wage and expanding early childhood education.
I don’t want to dismiss this all out of hand. It’s certainly possible that—come next year—the White House will find itself with a band of friendly Republican senators and a House led by relative pragmatists like McCarthy and Speaker John Boehner. In which case, there’s a chance for real progress on issues where some consensus exists.
But we shouldn’t kid ourselves; assuming Republicans can even craft a positive agenda—a harder task than it looks—it’s still true that a GOP Congress would face tremendous pressure to make good on five years of promises, from the constant pledge to “repeal Obamacare” to investigations of perceived malfeasance like the IRS scandal to a raft of overly partisan bills formerly held up by the Democratic majority in the Senate. Indeed, the last time Republican leaders promised a more constructive Congress was just after the 2012 election, when then-Majority Leader Eric Cantor told Fox News that he thought “there are areas that we have in common and can work toward solutions together.” Later that year, House Republicans shut down the government over Obamacare.
Yes, the likely Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, has a record for deal-making and has said he wants to restore a sense of bipartisanship to the institution. But this is both at odds with other statements promising a more divisive agenda—“We’re going to go after them on health care, on financial services, on the Environmental Protection Agency, across the board”—and the reality of the GOP base, which still wants confrontation with Democrats, not reconciliation.
Add to this the fact that Republican primaries—if they look anything like the 2012 contests—will feature a parade of purity demands and authenticity tests, as candidates try to outdo each other in their commitment to conservative principles. Will the GOP Congress stay above the fray and pass constructive legislation meant to soften the party’s appearance during the fractious primary season? Or will presidential contenders like Texas Sen. Ted Cruz use their platforms to force confrontation and bolster their bona fides with primary voters?
If the former, we might get a functional—albeit right-wing—national legislature. If the latter, we should expect two more years of congressional dysfunction, with the Senate as the stage for antics instead of the House.