Decisive midterm election victories in November put Republicans in a powerful position to move their own legislative agenda this year, but as the new Congress convenes Tuesday there are early signs of trouble in the House for the GOP's expanded majority. House Republicans are facing some of the same divisions that have hobbled their efforts to govern over the past four years, particularly on fiscal matters.
Imagine looking at yesterday's developments on Capitol Hill from John Boehner's perspective. House Majority Whip Steve Scalise got caught having spoken to a white-supremacist group, but the Louisiana Republican's leadership position is secure and uncontested. Literally zero GOP lawmakers have publicly spoken out against Scalise and allied activist groups have balked at the very idea of his ouster.
The Speaker of the House, meanwhile, had led his party to its largest majority in generations -- and he's the one facing an angry intra-party mutiny.
GOP leaders desperately wanted the new, Republican-led Congress to get off on the right foot. Those hopes have obviously been dashed -- one GOP lawmaker resigned his seat last week following a felony conviction, one GOP leader was embroiled in a racially charged controversy, and now the Speaker himself is having to deal with a contingent of his followers trying to tear him down the day before his re-election.
Meet the new Republican Party. It looks an awful lot like the old Republican Party.
Odds are, the anti-Boehner revolt will fall short, and even the mutineers concede they don't have the votes to prevail, at least as of last night. But what does it say about the state of the House GOP conference that, literally on Day One, they're fighting amongst themselves about destroying their own leader?
Dana Milbank called the Capitol Hill drama a "freak show," which is both accurate and the opposite of the impression party leaders hoped to make on the first day of their newfound congressional power. What Republicans wanted was a smooth ascension as the party girds for confrontation with the White House; what Republicans are getting is a divisive revolt that will leave everyone involved bruised.
As for what to expect, this afternoon, House members will gather on the floor to elect their leaders, and Boehner will need a majority of the votes cast. The exact number of votes needed may vary based on exactly how many members participate. The new House Republican majority will have 246 members, which suggests Boehner can lose 28 or so of his own GOP followers and still keep his Speaker's gavel.
As of this morning, the mutineers appear to have less than half the votes they'll need to succeed, though the right-wing contingent insists they'll still looking for allies and may yet expand their numbers.
If no candidate for Speaker gets a majority on the first ballot, the voting will move on to a second ballot, which would be humiliating for Boehner and create a dynamic with no modern precedent. (Remember, this remains an unlikely scenario.)
"There are a lot of members, more than a sufficient number, to pull this off," Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.), a Boehner critic, told the Washington Post. "The only thing in our way is fear, fear by those who are worried about the repercussions of voting no. We're doing everything we can to calm those fears."