Top 10 twists of the GOP Congress

Top 10 twists of the GOP Congress
© Greg Nash - Moriah Ratner

The first two years of a GOP-controlled Congress are in the books. 

While most legislative accomplishments came before the chaotic election campaign took hold, Republicans are promising a much busier schedule in Washington next year when they get to work with a president of their party for the first time in nearly a decade.

Here’s a look back at the GOP's first session controlling both chambers of Congress since the George W. Bush era.

BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerA new kind of hero? Last week's emotional TV may be a sign GOP up in arms over Cheney, Kinzinger Freedom Caucus presses McCarthy to force vote to oust Pelosi MORE resigns as Speaker; Ryan rises

By far the biggest story of this Congress was the successful push by House conservatives to oust Rep. John BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerA new kind of hero? Last week's emotional TV may be a sign GOP up in arms over Cheney, Kinzinger Freedom Caucus presses McCarthy to force vote to oust Pelosi MORE (R-Ohio) as Speaker.  

Boehner had struggled throughout his five years leading House Republicans to tame the party’s right flank. Over and over, a group of conservatives that eventually formed the Freedom Caucus tried to push Boehner to more aggressively confront President Obama in fights like lifting the debt limit and defunding the Affordable Care Act. But Boehner’s success was limited.


Then last summer, Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) introduced a resolution known as a “motion to vacate the chair” that, if brought up for a vote, would have served as a confidence vote in Boehner’s leadership. Conservatives hung the measure over Boehner’s head with the implicit threat they’d force a vote if they weren’t happy with how he handled fights with Democrats.

Within two months, Boehner decided he’d had enough. He shocked House Republicans when he announced his resignation, a day after fulfilling his dream of seeing a pope speak before Congress. 

House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (Calif.), the second-ranking Republican, initially emerged as the front-runner to succeed Boehner. But he abruptly dropped out after the Freedom Caucus backed long-shot Rep. Daniel Webster (R-Fla.), depriving McCarthy of 218 votes to win the election on the House floor.

Pressure built for Rep. Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanWisconsin GOP quietly prepares Ron Johnson backup plans RealClearPolitics reporter says Freedom Caucus shows how much GOP changed under Trump Juan Williams: Biden's child tax credit is a game-changer MORE (R-Wis.), then the House Ways and Means Committee chairman, to fill the leadership vacuum. Ryan was content with what he described as his “dream job” chairing the panel and expressed reluctance to spend more time away from his family. But he eventually relented, under the condition that the House GOP’s three main factions — the conservative Republican Study Committee, centrist Tuesday Group and far-right Freedom Caucus — endorse him.

Ryan’s strategy worked, clearing the way for his election a month after Boehner decided to step down.

Ryan drags out Trump endorsement 

As the presidential campaign got underway, Ryan’s weekly press conferences in the Capitol were increasingly dominated by questions about Donald TrumpDonald TrumpSenators introduce bipartisan infrastructure bill in rare Sunday session Gosar's siblings pen op-ed urging for his resignation: 'You are immune to shame' Sunday shows - Delta variant, infrastructure dominate MORE. The Speaker repeatedly rebuked Trump for, among other things, proposing to ban Muslims from coming to the U.S., being slow to disavow support from a former Ku Klux Klan leader and attacking a Hispanic judge overseeing a fraud case against Trump University because of his heritage.

But GOP leaders who hadn't expressed much enthusiasm for Trump quickly fell into line after the real estate mogul effectively clinched the party’s nomination in May — except for Ryan. 

The Speaker stunned the political world when he told CNN’s Jake Tapper in an interview that he was “just not ready” to support Trump. He met with Trump on Capitol Hill a week later, which didn’t lead to an endorsement. 

But about a month later, Ryan endorsed Trump in an op-ed for his hometown newspaper, The Janesville Gazette. In the end, Ryan concluded Trump would be more likely than Democratic nominee Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonClintons, Stacey Abrams meeting Texas Democrats Biden says Russia spreading misinformation ahead of 2022 elections Highest-ranking GOP assemblyman in WI against another audit of 2020 vote MORE to enact his conservative policy agenda.

"It's no secret that he and I have our differences. I won't pretend otherwise. And when I feel the need to, I'll continue to speak my mind. But the reality is, on the issues that make up our agenda, we have more common ground than disagreement,” Ryan wrote.

Ryan and Trump have struck up a working partnership since then, with an eye toward sweeping GOP policy changes in 2017. 

Congress approves trade authority

What a difference a year makes. Lawmakers toiled for weeks in the summer of 2015 to advance “fast-track” authority giving the Obama administration more leeway in negotiating the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) with Pacific Rim nations. The measure allowed the White House to send trade deals to Congress for up-or-down votes without the ability to amend or filibuster them. 

Many Democrats, including the House and Senate minority leaders, were on the opposite side of the Obama administration. Thirteen pro-free-trade Senate Democrats and 28 House Democrats voted with Republicans to send the measure to the president’s desk. 

Ryan, then the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, with oversight of the trade bill, said a year later that the TPP didn’t have the votes to pass. President-elect Trump campaigned against the deal, effectively killing it. 

Clash with Obama over immigration 

Republicans faced a major fight over immigration right out of the gate in 2015 as conservatives agitated for blocking Obama’s executive actions shielding millions from deportation. A massive catch-all government spending bill approved in the final hours of the 2014 lame-duck session provided only a three-month extension of funding for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), making it the first task of the new GOP-controlled Congress. 

But Senate Democrats blocked a funding measure that would have stopped Obama’s executive actions from going forward, and the president vowed he wouldn’t sign if it did reach his desk. 

Conservatives howled when GOP leaders eventually folded and moved a DHS funding measure without addressing the immigration issue. But Obama’s executive actions were put on hold anyway after a Texas judge temporarily halted them.

Netanyahu warns of Iran deal before Congress

In a swipe at the Obama administration in early 2015, then-Speaker Boehner invited Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to deliver a speech before Congress without consulting first with the White House.

Netanyahu stridently opposed the international negotiations led by the Obama administration to curb Iran’s nuclear arsenal. In his speech, Netanyahu warned the negotiations would result in a “very bad deal.” His appearance came just two weeks before Israeli voters went to the polls to decide whether he should be reelected, raising questions about his political motives. 

Dozens of House and Senate Democrats skipped the speech in protest. Obama, Vice President Biden and Secretary of State John KerryJohn KerryHow the US could help Australia develop climate action Equilibrium/ Sustainability — Presented by NextEra Energy — Clean power repurposes dirty power No. 2 State Department official to travel to China amid tensions MORE also didn’t meet with Netanyahu while he was in Washington. 

Republicans reject Iran deal

GOP lawmakers uniformly opposed the nuclear deal with Iran but weren’t able to block its implementation.

The House rejected a resolution approving the deal, with 25 Democrats voting alongside Republicans to express their opposition. Even so, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) worked hard to ensure the margin wasn’t enough to override Obama’s veto. Passage of a resolution opposing the deal would have prevented the White House from upholding a part of the agreement to lift economic sanctions on Iran. 

Senate Democrats also blocked a measure disapproving the Iran deal, leaving the GOP without a way to stop it. Trump has criticized the Iran agreement, calling it a bad deal. 

Pope Francis visits Washington

Boehner had been trying to get a pope to speak before Congress for two decades. Finally, in what would be his last year in Congress, his dream came true when Pope Francis accepted his invitation.

The first address to Congress by a pope was one of the most anticipated events in Washington last year. Seats in the House viewing gallery became the hottest tickets in the city, and thousands gathered on the National Mall to watch the speech. 

Francis, in his address, implored lawmakers to have compassion for immigrants while briefly touching upon his views regarding climate change and abortion. 

The famously emotional former Speaker was moved by the experience. When appearing before reporters after announcing his resignation, he recounted a moment when Francis put his arm around him and said “pray for me.” He later said in an interview with CBS’s John Dickerson that the day “helped clear the picture” that it was time to move on. 

Bipartisan budget, transportation and education bills pass

The two-year budget deal negotiated by Boehner and the White House helped clear the way for government spending bills and ensured lawmakers were off the hook on thorny fiscal issues like the debt limit until 2017. Republicans also passed a flurry of bipartisan legislation at the end of 2015 that had been years in the making.

After a decade of passing short-term patches to fund the nation’s road and transit projects, Congress approved a five-year measure that will last until the end of Trump’s first term.

Lawmakers additionally passed an overhaul of the George W. Bush-era No Child Left Behind law, eight years after it originally expired. The Obama administration had been issuing waivers from No Child Left Behind mandates since 2011 that proved to be unrealistic for many school districts. Congress put an end to those waivers with a bipartisan compromise that maintained some of the original law’s testing requirements while preventing the federal government from requiring states to comply with education standards like Common Core. 

House Democrats stage a sit-in

Democrats had grown tired of moments of silence on the House floor to honor gun violence victims. Then another gun tragedy struck in June, this time at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Fla., where an assailant who had expressed sympathies for ISIS killed 49 people. 

Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), a civil rights hero, had an idea: stage a sit-in on the House floor. GOP leaders found themselves powerless to force Democrats out of the chamber and had no choice but to wait for 26 hours to take back control.  

Democratic lawmakers brazenly broke with House rules and decorum as they sat on the floor and live-streamed proceedings with their phones. And when House GOP leaders pushed ahead with previously scheduled floor votes on unrelated legislation, Democrats shouted down Ryan as he tried to speak.

Republicans pledged to punish rule-breaking Democrats to avoid establishing what they saw as a dangerous precedent of a House minority commandeering the floor. But Congress adjourned for the year without any retribution for House Democrats.

Congress narrowly avoids shutdown 

GOP leaders opted against negotiating another catchall government spending package with Obama in the lame-duck session this year.

Appropriators bemoaned that a short-term spending bill lasting until April 28 effectively sent their work on funding bills out the window. But the lack of dramatic negotiations over massive legislation at the end of the year stood in contrast to recent sessions when staffers and lawmakers worried they’d spend the holidays in the Capitol. 

The legislation included funding to combat opioid addiction, partially reimburse New York City for the costs of protecting Trump Tower, and a provision to help expedite a waiver required for James Mattis to serve as Defense secretary.

The House easily passed the legislation before adjourning for the year. But it was another story in the Senate, where Sen. Joe ManchinJoe ManchinSenators introduce bipartisan infrastructure bill in rare Sunday session Manchin on reported boos at Democratic luncheon: 'I heard a lot of nos' Schumer: Democrats 'on track' to pass bipartisan deal, .5T budget MORE (D-W.Va.) held up consideration because the spending bill only extended coal miner health benefits for four months instead of a year. 

Manchin, who’s up for reelection in 2018 in a red state that overwhelmingly voted for Trump, demanded the bill be amended to include a full year of benefits even though the House had left town. He relented just hours before a midnight deadline to prevent a government shutdown.