- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 11, 2023

Chaos. Dysfunction. Abject disaster. Those were some of the more printable projections of House Republicans as they struggled to elect Speaker Kevin McCarthy in January.

Two months on, however, Republicans have maintained a general sense of unity as they work their way through an early slate of crowd-pleasing bills.

Although a vocal group of detractors derailed a key immigration bill and efforts to impeach Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas have stumbled, Republicans have mostly found areas for agreement.

They have even notched a surprising victory by overturning the District of Columbia’s crime bill, forcing a comical retreat by President Biden.

“I think that we’re driving an agenda and cranking out agenda items,” said Rep. Nicholas Langworthy, New York Republican. “The fact that Biden’s going to sign the D.C. crime law into effect I think is a huge victory. It’s showing success, progress. You don’t see that on the other side of the Capitol.”

Many political observers saw the battle over Mr. McCarthy’s ascent to the speakership as a symptom of internal tumult. Lawmakers said it was a clarifying moment, underscoring how little leeway Republicans have in a chamber where they hold 222 seats, just a handful over the majority-making threshold of 218.

“That was a hell of a week, that speaker’s race,” said Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, Georgia Republican. “But for everybody to come together like we are, especially with our razor-thin majority, I think that shows we’re unified here and we want to do a good job with our majority.”

Mr. Langworthy said the speaker’s fight “showed everyone the give-and-take that we have to have to be successful.”

“That was a very important process to go through because it kind of showed what a small majority is all about,” he said.

Mr. McCarthy had to survive 15 rounds of voting to win the speaker’s post. He negotiated with holdouts on his right flank who argued that he wasn’t committed enough to their conservative principles.

Analysts said the fracas exposed deep divisions within the party. Despite Republican unity over the past couple of months, they still expect chaos to win out.

So far, Republicans have put popular bills on the floor.

The legislation to overturn the District’s crime rewrite cleared with the support of more than 30 Democrats. That number would have been much higher had Mr. Biden made his support known earlier.

A measure to overturn the District’s law on noncitizen voting cleared the House with more than 40 Democrats in support, and a bill to declassify intelligence regarding the origins of the coronavirus passed unanimously.

Other bills have been more partisan.

A measure to overturn vaccine mandates for international travelers drew seven Democratic votes.

Legislation that would create a general prohibition on federal employees using their positions to push social media platforms to censor speech cleared on a 219-206 straight party-line vote.

Sarah Binder, a political scientist at George Washington University and the Brookings Institution, pointed to bills that Republicans promised but that have not made it to the floor. One would slap limits on Mr. Biden’s border policies, and another would restrict taxpayer funding for abortion.

She said the real challenges await, with looming fights over whether to write a budget and how to raise the government’s debt limit.

“The tough issues haven’t yet either been allowed to come to the floor or are really moving very slowly,” she said. “The things that have trickled through are pretty narrow.”

Given the divisions, with Democrats holding sway in the Senate and Mr. Biden in the White House, House Republicans were bound to be constrained in their legislative accomplishments, Ms. Binder said.

They were supposed to make a bigger mark with oversight. Even there, Ms. Binder said, Republicans are struggling.

“Lots of hearings, lots of subpoenas, but no coherent story about holding the Biden administration accountable,” she said.

Thomas M. Davis III ran the House Republicans’ campaign committee from 2001 to 2004, when the chamber had a slim Republican majority. He said they were able to post some significant wins at the time but circumstances have changed.

For one thing, he said, far more lawmakers face their biggest tests in primaries than in the general election. That often rewards lawmakers willing to defy party leaders and hinder action.

“Basically, the middle has collapsed, and that’s the problem that McCarthy has had,” Mr. Davis said. “Every one of these rebels is from absolutely safe deep-red districts. We didn’t have that 20 years ago.”

He said the debt ceiling debate will be the real test for Mr. McCarthy and fellow Republicans.

Rep. James Comer, Kentucky Republican, acknowledged the upcoming tests but said the party is aware of the stakes.

“We don’t have any other options,” he said. “We have to figure it out. It’s our time to govern, and people want to see whether or not we can govern, and I think we’re proving we can at the beginning. But we’ve got a lot of tough issues in the near future.”

Rep. Ryan Zinke, Montana Republican, compared the House Republican Conference in the first week of the congressional session to Gen. George Washington’s ragtag Continental Army before it tasted a first victory.

Half of the House Republicans began serving in 2019 or later and have never been part of a congressional majority. Those in office longer spent the past three years serving under COVID-19 restrictions. They were able to attend hearings by video and cast votes by proxy without a physical presence in Washington.

“You didn’t get to know your colleagues,” Mr. Zinke said.

As the minority, they had little say in legislation and attracted little media attention, adding to frustration and isolation. Now, Republicans have a hand in setting the agenda. Indeed, they have even worked over the White House by forcing Mr. Biden’s embarrassing reversal on the District’s crime bill.

“Winning creates muscle memory,” Mr. Zinke said.

The former Navy SEAL added: “I think there’s a recognition we’re better as a group. It’s very difficult to make advances when you have snipers within the perimeter.”

• Stephen Dinan can be reached at sdinan@washingtontimes.com.

• Kerry Picket can be reached at kpicket@washingtontimes.com.

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