The first Republican-controlled Congress in eight years got off to a rocky start Tuesday after a brazen revolt by GOP conservatives failed to oust House Speaker John A. Boehner but cast a familiar shadow over his ability to lead the emboldened majority.
Boehner ultimately won the opportunity to return as speaker with the biggest Republican delegation since the World War II era, but the surprisingly robust effort to topple him was just as historic.
In all, 25 rank-and-file Republicans withheld their support, more than twice as many as during a similar 2013 coup attempt and the highest number of party defections in a speaker’s race since 1923.
The dramatic opening, occurring on an otherwise heady, ceremonial first day of the 114th Congress, renewed doubts about the Republican Party’s ability to implement its agenda, despite an impressive showing in the November election.
Acknowledging the difficulty ahead as a Republican-led House and Senate prepare to confront President Obama, an upbeat Boehner told colleagues they could still accomplish big goals.
“This won't be done in a tidy way,” said Boehner, who mostly refrained from his usual teary-eyed sentimentality for a businesslike appeal punctuated by sentiments from his Catholic faith. “As speaker, all I ask, and frankly expect, is that we disagree without being disagreeable. Let's make this the time of harvest.”
Obama struck a welcome tone as he pursued areas of agreement with Boehner, of Ohio, and the new Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, on issues of trade and tax policy that often divide the White House from congressional Democrats.
“I’m very much looking forward to working with them,” Obama said. “I’m confident that there are going to be areas where we disagree, and there will be some pitched battles, but I’m also confident that there are enormous areas of potential agreement that would deliver for the American people.”
But other Democrats took the opportunity to showcase divisions within the Republican Party. They noted that tea party lawmakers, including Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, had at times dominated the party’s agenda and weakened Boehner’s leadership. In 2013, Cruz and other conservative Republicans sparked a government shutdown over the Affordable Care Act despite Boehner’s and McConnell’s objections.
“The Republican Party is at war with itself,” said Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee. “It shows that John Boehner doesn’t have control of the direction that his caucus will take, and I think that’s going to make it very challenging for him.”
The new Congress opened as the first snow of the season dusted the Capitol grounds, with 58 new members of the House and 13 new senators taking the oath of office — many with families and children in their fanciest dress.
Vice President Joe Biden swore in the senators in what has become an unlikely bipartisan ritual, gushing over senators’ children and fawning over mothers and grandmothers.
First in line was McConnell — a past and potentially future negotiating partner with the White House — followed by Republican Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, the new majority whip. After a few photos, Biden leaned in close — not for a joke, as he often does, but for some business.
“We ought to be able to get some things done,” Biden told the Senate’s No. 2 Republican.
But the effort to oust Boehner in the House and similar confrontations awaiting McConnell in the Senate raise doubts about GOP leaders’ ability to control the new Congress. If a sizable number of Democratic lawmakers had not missed Tuesday’s House vote because of weather-related flight delays and the New York funeral of former Democratic Gov. Mario Cuomo, the 216 votes that Boehner secured for his third term as speaker might not have been enough. Typically, 218 votes make a majority in the House.
“This could create some challenges,” said Rep. Charlie Dent (R-Pa.), pointing to upcoming budget battles.
If Republicans hope to put in place a conservative agenda to cut social welfare programs and implement business-friendly tax policies, they will need a united majority to overcome likely Democratic opposition. A first test could come as soon as next week as the GOP tries to stop Obama’s immigration executive actions, which could defer deportation for as many as 5 million immigrants in the country illegally.
Despite the promise of new beginnings, the White House also signaled Tuesday that Obama would veto two expected GOP-led bills: one to approve the Keystone XL pipeline and one to ease the insurance mandate for some employers under the Affordable Care Act by changing the definition of a full-time workweek to 40 hours from 30 hours.
“The real test will come on some of the harder governance issues,” Dent said.
Opposition to Boehner has been fueled by internal party frustrations and pressure from outside political groups, including tea party organizations that often urge lawmakers to break ranks. Twenty-four Republicans cast votes Tuesday for someone else to be speaker, and one simply voted “present.”
“My vote is truly based on one thing: I got thousands of phone calls and emails from my district saying vote for someone else,” said Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), who opposed Boehner. “When you get that — I’m here for one reason, and that is to represent the people of North Carolina.”
Boehner has been slow to respond or punish those who do not fall in line. But he may be striking a tougher stance as he asserts his authority.
Rep. Tim Huelskamp (R-Kan.) said that after he announced his “no” vote, a GOP committee chairman told him he would lose a hoped-for subcommittee assignment. Two other lawmakers who voted against Boehner were swiftly removed from their committee assignments.
Democrats had a more modest showing of dissent. Four Democrats declined to cast the mostly symbolic votes in support of Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) for speaker, but others, notably the California delegation, gave her a hearty endorsement.
One key Democratic lawmaker was conspicuously absent Tuesday: Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada. The outgoing majority leader was working from home under doctor’s orders as he recovers from broken bones and a concussion that he suffered last week while he was working out.