Tough week leaves Boehner, majority in confusion, picking up the pieces

House Republicans on Thursday sought to regroup from a rocky week that saw the abrupt resignation of one member and two failed votes on the floor.

Rank-and-file members said GOP leaders need to do a better job of organizing their troops as more tensions surface ahead of big budget votes. Appropriators on Thursday were forced to delay the introduction of a short-term spending measure because of objections from conservative members of the conference. 

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In a Thursday morning press conference, Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said that in the GOP’s efforts to “get off to a fast start,” party leaders had to move legislation that had not been vetted by committees, which took time to organize.

The result was a series of legislative failures, as conservative freshman Republicans and a bloc of Democrats banded together to defeat an extension of the Patriot Act and a bill to force repayments from the United Nations. Earlier this week, House Republican leaders scrapped a planned vote on a Trade Adjustment Assistance benefits measure.

“I think the committee process is important because you can work out the kinks of a bill … and because a lot of these committees weren’t organized, we weren’t able to do our work through the committee process,” Boehner said.

The Ohio Republican has promised to empower committees in the new Congress, in contrast to the more centralized nature of the previous four years, in which legislation had largely been drafted out of Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) office.

Boehner told reporters on Wednesday that GOP leaders are “not going to be perfect every day,” after 26 Republicans voted against extending the Patriot Act under an expedited floor maneuver that required two-thirds of those voting to support the bill for passage.

“I really do believe that it’s early in the process — the House worked its will under the suspension bills and the bill failed,” Boehner said.

The House on Thursday approved a rule governing debate for the Patriot Act, which the GOP will try to pass with a simple majority vote next week.

The majority’s struggles were compounded on Wednesday by the sudden resignation of Rep. Chris Lee.

The New York Republican abandoned his seat hours after the tabloid website Gawker.com reported that the married congressman had sent a photo of himself to a woman he encountered on Craigslist. Lee, who is bare-chested in the photo, told the woman he was a divorced lobbyist.

Speaking tersely and hesitantly about the matter on Thursday, Boehner said Lee made “the right decision” to step down.

“Congressman Lee made his own decision that he thought was in his best interests and the interests of his family,” Boehner said. 

Asked by a reporter why there have so many sex scandals involving Washington politicians in recent years and whether it had anything to do with the Capitol Hill lifestyle, Boehner demurred.

“I wouldn’t know,” he said to laughs.

Republican lawmakers have largely downplayed the week’s setbacks, saying they were of minor importance in the context of the party’s much larger battles to come.

Tensions have been building within the conference over a spending bill that party leaders had planned to unveil on Thursday in advance of a vote next week — lawmakers must pass funding legislation by March 4 to avoid a government shutdown.

The unveiling had to be delayed, however, when conservatives demanded deeper spending cuts than those outlined by GOP leaders. Led by the Appropriations Committee chairman, Rep. Hal Rogers (R-Ky.), lawmakers were scrambling Thursday night to find cuts that would amount to the $100 billion that many conservative lawmakers are demanding.

Rep. Pete Sessions (R-Texas) said that leaders are still getting their bearings.

“I think it’s pretty apparent that we have a brand-new group of people — some 87 new freshmen — that there’s a lot of spade work that needs to go on and that we can always be a little bit stronger and better,” Sessions said.

Sessions’s deputy at the NRCC, Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.), was equally circumspect.

“I wouldn’t read too much into it. When you open up a process and you don’t have a strong command-and-control structure, members are going to vote the way they are going to vote. It’s called democracy,” Walden said.

He then added, “We’re all just kind of feeling our way through this.”

Rep. Charlie Bass (R-N.H.), who returned to Congress this year after serving from 1995 to 2007, said Republican leaders rightly understand “that the freshman class needs the kind of time and flexibility to build the position that they feel comfortable with.

“John Boehner has exactly the right idea to let the process flow,” Bass said. “Why does everybody get so uptight about having to win every vote?”

Several GOP lawmakers said the real test for success would come when the House considers the continuing resolution next week.

A veteran Republican, Rep. Joe Barton (Texas), blamed the loss of the two votes earlier this week on the leadership being distracted by the funding measure. 

“I think they are focused on the continuing resolution and the debt ceiling and didn’t really think about these bills,” Barton said. “I don’t think it’s a major problem. I think they assumed they would pass, didn’t do the whip count. It’s a growing pain. It’s not a failure of the whip team. They didn’t whip it — they didn’t think they needed to.” 

Regardless, the Lee resignation and the legislative fumbles — as well as the corresponding negative press coverage — have ended the honeymoon for the new House majority.