WASHINGTON (AP) - Conservatives emboldened by House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s astonishing loss to a tea party-backed upstart are pledging to capitalize on their newfound political strength.
That is setting up election-year struggles over Congress’ most basic legislative responsibilities and erasing already slim hopes for ambitious bills on immigration and voting rights.
Cantor’s presence in the leadership ranks had raised expectations of some congressional action this year on a GOP alternative to President Barack Obama’s health care law, a business-friendly reauthorization of the Export-Import bank, a bipartisan voting rights measure and even some version of an immigration overhaul.
The Virginia Republican’s primary defeat last Tuesday at the hands of immigration foe Dave Brat and his decision to step down as majority leader July 31 dashed any dimming prospects for far-reaching legislation. With control of Congress at stake in November, conservatives read the election results as a repudiation of any measure that might divide Republican ranks.
Establishment Republicans who have engaged in a struggle with tea party factions the past five years dismissed the crowing over Cantor’s loss, arguing that he was the conservative’s conservative in the leadership. Several Republicans insisted the internal party fights will continue.
If the GOP seizes control of the House and Senate in November, conservatives have high expectations for bold action and challenges to the lame-duck president in the year ahead of the 2016 White House race.
For now, with just 36 legislative days left in the House, lawmakers plan to do the bare minimum.
“The agenda’s pretty well set - we’ve got to get a budget done before the 1st of October, appropriations bills, maybe some other VA legislation done, that’s about all,” said Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tenn.
With a Republican House that deeply distrusts Obama and a Democratic Senate, Congress has produced very little in a year and a half. Just 121 bills have become law. The previous two years produced a remarkably low 283 laws.
“I don’t think the problem here is recalcitrant Republicans, I think it’s actually recalcitrant Democrats and a president who’s not very good at legislative dealmaking,” said Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla.
In the chaotic aftermath of Cantor’s loss, conservatives and more established Republicans scrambled for the sudden openings in the leadership ranks.
California Rep. Kevin McCarthy, now No. 3 in the GOP leadership as whip, is all but assured of moving up in the ranks to replace Cantor though he faces a long-shot challenge from Idaho Rep. Raul Labrador, a late entry on Friday.
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, is not being challenged for now.
The election is Thursday.
Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, said voters sent a message in the Cantor race: GOP leaders had better change course or risk a backlash.