The post–John Boehner shuffle in the House of Representatives is beginning to take shape as an outline of the future GOP leadership structure started to emerge on Tuesday. First, the current majority leader, Rep. Kevin McCarthy, is not facing any serious challengers for the speakership. (No offense meant to his one declared opponent, Rep. Daniel Webster, the third-term Floridian who’s reportedly distributing copies of his “Widgets, Principles and Republicans” treatise in an effort to woo colleagues.)
The race to replace McCarthy as majority leader is setting up to be more of an entertaining spectacle. Since McCarthy is probably not conservative enough for the same members who just claimed John Boehner’s scalp, House conservatives would like one of their own as the new majority leader. But who is acceptable? They have been fickle about this. Rep. Steve Scalise, the current majority whip, is running for the job. Recall that Scalise was installed to the leadership last year as the supposed leadership liaison to the conservative flank. (You may also remember Scalise for his great survival skills.) But now conservatives may be looking for someone else. How about Budget Committee Chairman Tom Price? He earned the endorsements of well-respected conservative Reps. Paul Ryan and Jeb Hensarling on Monday—enough for the Washington Examiner to report that conservatives might throw their support to McCarthy for speaker if they got Price for majority leader. But that was Monday. By Tuesday morning conservatives were talking up Rep. Trey Gowdy as the One True Conservative who could save America as the House’s second most powerful figure. As chair of the select committee on Benghazi, Gowdy has already been tasked with dragging out an investigation into Hillary Clinton through November 2016. Is it really worth plucking him away from that important task? By Tuesday afternoon, he had decided no. So now, the far-right flank will have to rally around some other previously unexamined vessel of pure, uncut conservatism.
They’ll figure it out one way or another. But then what?
Let’s take a peek at the calendar. The Senate is expected to pass a continuing resolution funding the government through mid-December by Wednesday morning, and the House should rubber-stamp it shortly thereafter. That kicks the Planned Parenthood funding debate into the longer-term negotiations over the remainder of the fiscal year. The debt ceiling will also need to be raised this fall. A gentle request from a concerned citizen: It would be really nice if John Boehner could call that up before he flees Washington.
That brings us to mid-December, the next funding deadline, and the first major test for the to-be-determined leadership team likely helmed by McCarthy and some super-duper conservative to be named later. What’s this flashy new A-team’s strategy for resolving that impasse? According to the Washington Post, the master plan appears to be more angry, vague hand-waving: “Conservatives now view December as the better time to challenge the president because there will be a new House GOP leadership team in place that they will pressure to take a tougher approach.”
House conservatives’ new plan sounds a lot like their old plan, the same one they’ve been running for years: the Tougher Approach.
Barring a change, presumptive Speaker McCarthy and his conservative sidekick will still be expected to defund Planned Parenthood during the government funding process in December. They’ll also be expected not to cede Democrats one single demand in spending negotiations elsewhere. This is the stuff from which problems are made. Any sort of stringent ideological demand that 40-odd House conservatives make in exchange for their votes—like the defunding of Planned Parenthood—will be either filibustered in the Senate or vetoed. “Fighting” from there on out will mean a government shutdown and a battle in the court of public opinion at the start of a presidential election year, for which Republicans will likely be blamed. The GOP made a valiant effort on Tuesday to begin the narrative crafting by grilling Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards during a House Oversight Committee hearing, but that won’t likely change the basic dynamic that makes shutdowns a losing issue for Republicans.
Still, the Tougher Approach in this case will presumably mean House Republican leaders refusing to give ground on their demands until the public turns in their favor. “We can win if we take the case to the American people. Show the Planned Parenthood videos. Stand united,” wrote Sen. Ted Cruz—a presidential candidate who would certainly increase his profile and possibly his standing among conservative voters by helming a shutdown shortly before the Iowa caucus—in a Politico op-ed last week. “If Obama follows through on his threat to veto funding for the federal government, we should force him to defend that radical position. Planned Parenthood is a private organization, not even part of the government. That’s worth repeating.” Here’s a contrary point worth repeating: Federal funding for Planned Parenthood is supported by 65 percent of the public. Only 29 percent of the public is against it, but that includes 59 percent of Republicans, which could only increase pressure for a showdown.
The Tougher Approach, should House conservatives apply the same pressure on their new leaders that they applied on Boehner, would call for an open-ended government shutdown over an issue on which the public, already conditioned to blame Republicans for shutdowns, strongly disagrees with the Republican position.
It would behoove McCarthy and whoever is elected as majority leader to resolve this funding issue during the leadership elections so there are no surprises heading into December—for everyone’s sake. McCarthy can try to glide into the speaker’s chair by not upsetting anyone along the way, but that’s only going to prop up expectations, which will be sure to upset conservatives all over again in a couple of months.