GOP struggles to get the votes

Greg Nash

Just don’t call him “The Hammer.”

Seven months on the job, House Majority Whip Steve Scalise’s wobbly vote-counting operation looks nothing like that of one of his predecessors, Tom DeLay of Texas, whose iron grip on his caucus made him one of the most respected – and feared – Republican leaders in Washington.

Scalise’s whip office has suffered a series of embarrassing setbacks, raising questions about whether the Louisiana Republican’s relatively new team is simply working out the kinks or if there’s a deeper, structural problem GOP leaders need to address.

{mosads}On at least three separate occasions since January, GOP leaders have placed high-profile bills on the weekly floor calendar, only to abruptly shelve the legislation after significant defections from their own rank-and-file members.

That was the case with an anti-abortion bill and a border security bill in January. And in late February, leaders pulled a bill reauthorizing the No Child Left Behind education act on the same day they stood on the floor and watched 52 Republicans successfully vote to kill a GOP-hatched plan to keep the Homeland Security Department funded for three weeks.

Democrats stepped in and bailed out Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) with just hours to spare before a shutdown.

“The adage has always been that the Republicans are like a well-oiled machine, Denny Hastert and the Hammer,” said Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.), who as co-chair of the Progressive Caucus sometimes clashed with Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) when she was Speaker. “But here, they look like they’re herding cats and we [Democrats] look tight.”

Of course, Scalise and other Republican leaders don’t have access to the some of the “persuasive” tools that their predecessors had. Leaders like DeLay could dangle – or threaten to withhold – earmarks for federal spending to compel members to fall in line, but the House GOP conference banned them in 2010.

And Scalise is still nurturing his relationship with K Street. At a January meeting at the Capitol Hill Club, Scalise introduced his whip and fundraising team to more than 300 lobbyists and consultants.

While DeLay’s coziness with K Street ultimately led to his political demise, it served his immediate successor, Roy Blunt, extremely well.

Then-House Majority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) “has assembled an organization of whips and lobbyist vote counters that has delivered more than 50 consecutive victories for the GOP leadership on tough fights over issues including tax and trade bills, District of Columbia school choice and tort reform – without a single defeat,” The Washington Post wrote in a 2005 profile of Blunt, the now-U.S. senator who had once served as DeLay’s chief deputy whip.

Scalise aides wouldn’t talk about the current whip operation’s recent stumbles on the record. And Scalise’s spokeswoman, Moira Smith, did not return an email or voice message seeking comment.

But members of Scalise’s whip team downplayed the legislative setbacks, saying there’s no reason to be alarmed – at least for now. There are 43 House GOP freshmen and this is Scalise’s first stint in leadership, they note.

Scalise is also still feeling out members of his own whip operation. Last month, two members — Reps. Ron DeSantis (R-Fla.) and Jeff Duncan (R.S.C.) — quit the team just as Scalise announced he would boot anyone who voted against procedural motions.

“It’s a brand new Congress, it’s a brand new operation. I’ve seen a few different whip operations and that tends to be the case – you need time to know who’s who, to work out the system,” Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.), a member of the whip team, told The Hill.

“Only time will tell. … At this stage, I’m not concerned because we’ve been here, what, a month? Talk to me in a couple months and we’ll see.”

Other GOP sources said Scalise shouldn’t shoulder all the blame. Boehner’s leadership team – including Scalise, Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and GOP Conference Chairwoman Cathy McMorris-Rodgers (R-Wash.) – huddles each week to decide what bills will come to the floor for a vote the following week.

Each of the recent situations has been unique. In January, female and moderate Republicans revolted against an anti-abortion measure over objections the exemptions for rape victims didn’t go far enough.

The vote on the Pain Capable Unborn Child Protection Act, a ban on abortions after 20 weeks, had been scheduled to coincide with the annual March for Life, but leaders swapped it for a less controversial abortion bill, infuriating anti-abortion activists who had traveled to Washington from around the country.

Meanwhile, the education bill was suddenly yanked late last month after running into conservative opposition over concerns the legislation didn’t do enough to cut back federal involvement in education policies. Leadership made the DHS funding bill the priority that day, and put the education bill on hold.

GOP leaders are continuing to work with members to resolve outstanding issues with the abortion, border security and education bills, and they could be brought up in the near future, a leadership aide said.

Last month’s 203-224 defeat of the three-week Homeland Security funding bill was a blow to the leadership team. And rank-and-file Republicans said it was all the more stunning because Boehner, Scalise and other leaders had kept the vote open for nearly an hour as they unsuccessfully tried to twist arms and change the minds of some conservatives on the House floor.

“I was surprised by what I saw on floor,” said Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.), a Tea Party favorite and founding member of the new conservative Freedom Caucus who was one of the 52 “no” votes on the DHS appropriations measure. “At first I thought they didn’t intend for it to pass, but it seemed to me they did intend for it to pass because they were working the floor so hard.”

Others on Capitol Hill say they’re sympathetic toward GOP leaders, who are being pulled in different directions by competing moderate and conservative factions within the 245-member conference.

“Considering how crazy these people are, I don’t know who could control them or how you would even get an accurate count on them,” one moderate Republican lawmaker said of conservatives in his party. “What DeLay used to do, when it got close, he’d put it on the floor and he figured enough Republicans would feel inspired and vote for it. But these guys don’t care.

“It’s been very difficult to get any progress out of these people.”

Scalise, who had served as chairman of the conservative Republican Study Committee, won a three-way race last summer to succeed then-Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, who went on to become majority leader after the surprise primary defeat of Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.).

As the only GOP leader from a red state, it was expected that Scalise would be able to bring along conservatives on key votes. But early in this legislative session, that hasn’t been the case.

Tea Party lawmakers said their decision to buck leadership on high-profile votes has nothing to do with Scalise. They take issue with leadership’s agenda, which they contend is being driven by lobbyists and their special interests.

These bills are not passing “because they’re not Republican principles. We campaigned against No Child Left Behind in the primaries, and then you come up here and ask us to reauthorize it? That presents a problem for people,” said Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.), a frequent conservative critic of leadership.

Scalise “doesn’t get to pick which bills go to the floor. I would say it’s the people above him, but it’s really lobbyists around them who pick which bills go to the floor, and they’re picking bills that can’t pass. …” Massie added. “The base knows these are not bills that support Republican principles.”

Asked if he could explain some of the recent decisions to postpone bills favored by GOP leaders, Boehner spokesman Michael Steel replied: “The Speaker, the leadership team and the entire Republican conference are constantly looking for better ways to achieve our conservative goals.”

An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.) is a member of the Freedom Caucus.

Tags Boehner Eric Cantor John Boehner Justin Amash Roy Blunt
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