Democrats beating GOP in divide and conquer game

Democrats may be flailing in the minority on Capitol Hill, but newly empowered Republicans have fared far worse in the opening act of the 114th Congress.

While nothing new, GOP divisions have been especially pronounced this January.

{mosads}On Day One of “America’s new Congress,” Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) had to beat back a rebellion from 25 conservatives seeking to oust him from the top job.

House Republicans passed a critical Homeland Security Department funding bill, only to hear some Senate counterparts warn it was too conservative to clear the upper chamber.

And uprisings from both moderates and conservatives have embarrassed GOP leaders, forcing them to pull an abortion bill one week and border security bill the next.

Democrats have their own divisions.

Many liberals are unhappy with President Obama’s push for new trade deals and “fast-track” authority, and Senate Democrats voted in favor of Iran sanctions opposed by the administration this week in committee.

But by and large, congressional Democrats and the White House have done a better job than Republicans at papering over their differences even as they’ve sought to exploit the GOP’s.

In the House, gleeful Democratic leaders have been doing everything they can to exploit the fissures in Boehner’s conference.

The subject line of a memo this week from Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) declared: “House Republicans’ Disastrous January: A Month of Distraction, Obstruction & Internal Dysfunction.”

And while Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) shepherded the Keystone XL pipeline through the upper chamber this week, Senate Democrats first forced votes on a number of amendments that sought to divide Republicans who will have to defend more seats in 2016.

Meanwhile, Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) and other Democrats decided to give the White House more time to engage in nuclear talks with Iran. While the sanctions bill moved forward in committee, Menendez and his allies said they would not support a floor vote until March.

The GOP setbacks haven’t been lost on Boehner, who conceded: “Yeah, there have been a couple stumbles — all in our effort to show the American people that we’re here to listen to their priorities.”

The Speaker said those stumbles were a result of Republicans trying to get off to a fast start with their new majority. They chose a series of bills that previously had no trouble clearing the lower chamber, and simply didn’t anticipate that political winds had shifted in their own ranks.

At the same time, it’s clear that Republicans are realizing the pitfalls of governing — just as the party seeks to prove it knows how to get things done.

Gains in the House last fall also mean that Boehner and his team must try to balance the interests of a more politically and geographically diverse caucus — one comprised of both blue-state Republicans like Reps. Lee Zeldin (N.Y.) and Bruce Poliquin (Maine), and hardcore Tea Party conservatives like Reps. Jody Hice (Ga.) and Gary Palmer (Ala.).

In the Senate, electoral math is also playing a role. Last cycle, red-state Democrats were racing to distance themselves from Obama as the party tried to defend more than 20 Senate seats. In 2016, that dynamic will be flipped, with Republicans defending the bulk of the 34 seats up for grabs.

Of course, Democrats are wrestling with their own intraparty divisions. In the final Senate vote to build Keystone, nine Democrats bucked their party leaders and joined Republicans in supporting the oil sands project.

The White House this week quickly scrapped its State of the Union proposal to hike taxes on “529s,” college savings plans, after congressional Republicans cried foul and two key Democratic allies in the House — Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) and Rep. Chris Van Hollen (Md.) — lobbied the president to drop the idea. Seeking to foment more Democratic discord, Republicans will push legislation to expand the tax-free investment accounts in the coming weeks.

Tensions over trade were on open display in Philadelphia, where senior Democrats at their House retreat — including Reps. Sandy Levin (Mich.) and Jan Schakowsky (Ill.) — sharply criticized the White House for what they said is a failure to inform Congress about key details of the emerging deals.

Still, Schakowsky was quick to downplay those divisions, saying the real disarray is on the GOP side. In recent weeks, Democrats have been buoyed by Obama’s approval ratings, which have been steadily climbing along with an improving economy.

“There’s a really determined spirit and focus — a feeling that we really do have a clear and coherent message …” Schakowsky said. “The president’s numbers are going up, and there’s a good deal of a sense of confidence, of boldness, proud that the president has been so bold, and I think that feeds into a sense of confidence and being on offense on the part of the Democrats.”

House Republicans are still trying to find their footing. A rare revolt from moderate Republicans forced leadership to yank a bill last week that would have banned almost all abortions after 20 weeks. A band of GOP women objected to the legislation’s provision requiring rape victims to report the crime to police if they wanted to be exempted.

This week, it was conservatives’ turn to gum up the process. House leaders blamed the massive snowstorm for putting Homeland Security Chairman Mike McCaul’s GOP border-security bill on ice, but conservative lawmakers — led by Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) — had spent days trying to scuttle the bill, claiming it wouldn’t secure the border or stop Obama’s executive actions on immigration.

Next week, Republicans will continue searching for a way out of the DHS funding standoff; the agency will run out of money on Feb. 27 unless Congress acts.

House Republicans this month passed a funding bill that takes bold steps to block Obama’s executive action halting deportations and providing work permits for millions of immigrants living in the country illegally. But a number of Republicans defected, wary that the provisions — particularly one to eliminate the administration’s 2012 deferred action program benefiting younger immigrants — went too far to penalize kids.

“These children came to our country through no fault of their own,” Rep. Charlie Dent (R-Pa.) said after opposing the measure.

Senate Democrats are now demanding a “clean” DHS bill, vowing that they’ll band together and filibuster the tougher, House-passed legislation. The endgame at this point is uncertain.

Boehner this week offered yet another approach to stopping Obama’s immigration actions: the courts. But that idea, too, has its GOP critics.

“I think we ought to be firing on all cylinders and try every bullet in the gun, but I don’t think this one is successful in killing the amnesty, and certainly not in time,” said Rep. Tim Huelskamp (R-Kan.).

“How long is this one gonna take?” he asked. “I’m not an attorney but I’m tired of attorneys telling me they know how long this will take and they know how [the courts are] gonna rule. They always seem to be wrong in the last four years.”

Tags Barack Obama John Boehner Mitch McConnell Nancy Pelosi

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