The new 114th Congress kicked off with a contentious election for speaker of the House and an escalating conflict with President Obama over the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, whose office responded with a veto threat.
Taken together, the two stories offered a good preview of where things are headed in 2015 now that Republicans hold both the Senate and House for the first time in the Obama era. With control over which bills comes up for a vote, Republican should finally be able to get some items to Obama’s desk, forcing him to either sign them or personally reject them. But they may spend at least as much time battling their own members as they do the White House as conservative activists demand a harder line against the president’s policies and bicker over their own proposals.
In the Senate, Mitch McConnell ascended from Minority Leader to Majority Leader on Tuesday while Vice President Joe Biden swore in new members, which included Republican rising stars like Cory Gardner of Colorado, Joni Ernst of Iowa, and Tom Cotton of Arkansas.
But the day was more than just feel-good ceremony. McConnell introduced a bill to approve the Keystone XL pipeline, a project that would pump oil from Canada to the Gulf Coast, as the first legislation of the year. The measure enjoys some Democratic support and nearly passed after the November elections, but on Tuesday, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said the president would not sign it because it would bypass the State Department’s ongoing evaluation of the project. Senate Republicans also canceled a Wednesday hearing on the bill after clashing with Democrats on process issues.
"The President threatening to veto the first bipartisan infrastructure bill of the new Congress must come as a shock to the American people who spoke loudly in November in favor of bipartisan accomplishments,” McConnell said in a statement.
Over on the House side, John Boehner was elected speaker for a third time, overcoming a rebellion from his right that saw 25 Republicans oppose him -- the most dissenting votes from within the majority party since at least 1923.
“Far too many Americans remain out of work and too many are working harder only to lose ground to stagnant wages and rising costs,” Boehner said in a floor speech after the vote. “We can do better.”
While the outcome was never seriously in doubt (Boehner fought off a similar rebellion from nine members in 2013) the vote was an opening day reminder of the GOP’s ongoing challenge to rein in its restive membership. As recently as last month, Republicans struggled to line up votes for a budget deal and many of the same 25 members who opposed Boehner on Tuesday will likely break ranks on key legislation throughout the year.
Conservatives nominated not one, but three alternative candidates for speaker: Louie Gohmert of Texas, and Ted Yoho and Daniel Webster, both of Florida. Webster sucked up the most anti-Boehner votes with 12 while Gohmert, despite a late endorsement from Sarah Palin, secured only three votes, one of them his own, and Yoho got two, including himself. Some individual members voted outside the box, with Rep. Curtis Clawson of Washington backing Senator Rand Paul and Gary Palmer of Alabama voting for Senator Jeff Sessions.
There were some surprises: Chris Gibson, who represents a moderate district in New York, voted for Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy instead, and Rep. Scott Rigell of West Virginia, who is considered a centrist, voted for Webster. Rod Blum, an Iowa freshman in a Democratic-leaning district, also voted for Webster, telling the Des Moines Register he “was elected by Iowans to stand up to the status quo.”
The story of Boehner’s tenure as speaker has largely been one of confrontation with the White House over must-pass legislation followed by civil war with Republicans when he inevitably reaches a compromise. This dynamic reached its peak in 2013 when the House forced a government shutdown in an unsuccessful attempt to block the Affordable Care Act.
Republican leaders on the House and Senate side alike have said they want to shed the party’s image of lurching from crisis to crisis in the 114th Congress and show they can offer positive legislation.
“I don’t want the American people to think that if they add a Republican president to a Republican Congress, that’s going to be a scary outcome,” McConnell told The Washington Post over the weekend. “I want the American people to be comfortable with the fact that the Republican House and Senate is a responsible, right-of-center, governing majority.”
Boehner enjoys a bigger majority now, which could give him some more leeway on tough votes, but the incoming members could present their own problems. In addition to Blum, two other freshmen also declined to back Boehner: Rep. David Brat, who ousted former Majority Leader Eric Cantor in a primary, voted for Jeff Duncan, while Brian Babin of Texas voted “present.” Georgia Congressman Barry Loudermilk voted for Boehner despite pledging during his campaign not do so, and will face plenty of pressure to buck leadership in the future.
Some of the tools traditionally used to control members are no longer available to Boehner. Thanks to an earmark ban, he can't offer promises of local spending projects, for example. But he still has some options: House aides told NBC News on Wednesday that Webster and another "no" vote, Florida Rep. Rich Nugent, were booted from plum spots on the Rules Committee.
The Republican House and Senate will get an early test of their ability to manage members next month. As part of December’s budget deal, funding for the Department of Homeland Security is set to expire on Feb. 27 and conservatives are demanding leaders refuse to renew it unless they include language reversing Obama's decision to protect millions of undocumented immigrants from deportation. The White House has already said it will veto attempts to block his immigration actions, setting the stage for yet another budget showdown.
In addition to rank and file members, Boehner enters the new Congress amid troubles inside leadership as well. House Majority Whip Steve Scalise is still managing the fallout from his admission that he spoke at a white supremacist conference in 2002 organized by the notorious ex-Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke. Boehner has thrown his support behind the embattled leader, but Scalise has yet to fully explain what happened and Democrats appear eager to keep the story going, with the White House stoking the flames on Monday.
"Ultimately, Mr. Scalise reportedly described himself as 'David Duke without the baggage,'" White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest told reporters on Monday, citing a quote a Louisiana reporter attributed to Scalise. "It will be up to Republicans to decide what that says about their conference."
The issue may eventually fade, although the damage to the party's nascent minority outreach efforts is another story. In the short term, Scalise will face national reporters for the first time on Wednesday morning at a press conference with House leaders.