The 114th Congress was sworn in on Tuesday and just like the 113th which ended in friction, this body of lawmakers started out on a contentious note.
Up first was John Boehner’s reelection as speaker of the House. In 2013 Boehner barely held onto his gavel. While no serious Hill observers thought he’d lose his leadership role, he came within three votes of becoming the first speaker in the modern era forced to be elected on a second ballot. Boehner was safely reelected with the support of 216 of his fellow members but this time around twenty-four Republicans opposed Boehner with one voting present.
It should be put into context that there were more defections because the GOP majority has grown in the aftermath of the November midterms. However, as The Washington Post points out, it was the biggest revolt against a speaker in 150 years. The opposition to Boehner from staunch conservatives, often dubbed the “Kamikaze Caucus” by senior members for their willingness to lead the party to defeat on principle, will further fan the flames that there’s an insurgency in Boehner’s conference.
There’s little doubt that these twenty-five or so members will continue to be a thorn in Boehner’s side for the duration of the 114th Congress. It remains to be seen whether Boehner will simply ignore them and use Democratic votes to pass big ticket items.
More pressing for the House GOP Leadership is the fate of the current Majority Whip Rep. Steve Scalise (R-LA). Scalise came under fire over the holiday break when it was reported that he spoke to a group with white supremacists views in Louisiana over twelve years ago. Scalise has admitted speaking to the group was a “mistake” and that he only addressed them on the issue of taxes. Boehner has been quick to back Scalise, as have most rank-and-file members of the House GOP Conference, including the first African-American Republican woman Rep. Mia Love (R-UT).
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Scalise caught a huge break that this incident came to light over the holidays, when most members where away from the glare of the TV cameras and without tape recorders being shoved in their face for comment. It remains to be seen whether or not Scalise can hold onto his post.
Democrats are already calling on him to not be in Leadership. The White House yesterday said Scalise serving in Leadership was emblematic of a party not in touch with all Americans. And Scalise’s reputation has certainly been damaged by the controversy. What he has going for him is Boehner’s support, the fact that the incident happened long ago and his quick apology statement – in which he highlighted the fact that the group he was speaking to didn’t necessarily approve of his own Catholic faith.
If Scalise proves to be too toxic and Boehner feels he needs to be pushed out—it would set off a chaotic fight for the number three House GOP Leadership spot early into the 114th Congress and that’s something Boehner would like to avoid.
The first serious deadline for the 114th Congress is February 28th. That is when the Department of Homeland Security runs out of funding. Republicans pushed for this in the last budget deal because they were upset over President Obama’s executive orders pertaining to immigration specifically deportations. Interestingly both sides feel they have the upper hand in this debate.
The GOP believes Americans don’t like Obama operating outside of Congress and are upset with what they call his “imperial presidency.” Democrats think the GOP’s plan hold funding to secure the homeland hostage over an immigration issue when the public supports reform is asinine. Republicans have decided that the first fight of the 114th Congress will be about immigration.
How far to the right the debate goes has all sorts of implications – not only for Boehner’s Leadership and his relationship with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell – but most importantly for the party, their potential 2016 presidential nominees.