As Congress gets back to work this week, the Republican majority faces the daunting task of trying to advance several big-ticket legislative items amid a sometimes strained relationship between the two chambers.
House and Senate Republicans will not only wrestle with their Democratic opponents, but in some cases with each other, as they look to complete an emergency supplemental spending bill for Iraq and Hurricane Katrina recovery, as well as a pension bill, immigration reform and a lobby overhaul package.
The majority views passage of these as key to bolstering its chances in the November elections, along with consideration of several other measures important to the GOP base, including an anti-gay-marriage amendment, abolition of the estate tax and energy legislation.
GOP tensions have risen in both chambers over some of the most hotly contested bills this year, leaving some to wonder whether the party can come together quickly enough to pass them in the time that remains in this Congress. Immigration and the emergency spending bill are the most high-profile measures on which Republicans have faced internal battles over how far to go in this election year.
“From the inside, it looks completely as if we are in a free-fall, chaotic mix,” acknowledged one GOP Senate aide. “We are debating amongst ourselves for competing proposals. We do have some differences, but ours are only visible because we have the spotlight on us.”
But this aide said: “Without a doubt, we need to realize that we need to be fighting the Democrats and not ourselves.”
“There’s always this natural tension between the House and the Senate that is almost imprinted on everyone’s DNA,” added a House Republican leadership aide. “That always tends to create a tough work environment.”
At the same time, the House aide said, “for as many House folks as there are who hold grudges, there are other folks who 30 seconds later forget they’re mad at the Senate. The bottom line is we have to put points on the board. We’ll be judged at the polls.”
In part, the GOP infighting can be attributed to the inherent differences between the two chambers: The House is known for striking a more conservative tone, while the Senate is viewed as more of a consensus-building body.
But beyond that, Republicans say they currently lack the powerful mediator they once enjoyed in President Bush, whose poll numbers continue to lag and who lacks the political capital he had just a year ago.
And the GOP is facing pressure from a conservative base seeking to move it to the right while trying to appeal to a broader electorate.
Another House Republican leadership aide described the current state of House-Senate relations as “decent” and said the attitude of House leaders toward their Senate counterparts was “trust but verify.”
GOP Senate sources said Republicans in both chambers know they must spend the next couple of months working together to try to get as much done as possible. The closer to November they get, the more difficult it will become to advance legislation against a Democratic Party looking to deny the GOP any victories to take to the voters.
“Most people recognize that accomplishment on good bills is important to Republicans in both houses,” another well-placed Senate GOP aide said. “We’ve got enough gridlock coming from the Democrats. We don’t need to create any of our own.”
Added another Republican aide: “We’re joined at the hip, so it’s imperative that we pass legislation that is going to give our guys ammo when they head back home and campaign this fall.”
Republicans in both chambers agreed that they can set aside their differences on most of the major items, with the exception of immigration reform, where the parties in the two bodies are in starkly different camps. Republicans privately concede that it could be an impossible task to advance a comprehensive bill this year. Instead, they may have to settle for a watered-down version that can meet the test of both chambers.
“Immigration will prove if we can all pull in the same direction or not,” a Republican Senate staffer said.
The path to completion for an immigration bill also is complicated by differing opinions over whether a mediocre bill is better than no bill at all.
House Republicans are convinced that the public — and particularly the GOP’s base — supports their enforcement-only bill more than the Senate’s comprehensive approach, leading some lawmakers to say privately that they would rather run in November on the House-passed bill than on a potentially weaker conference report.
But other Members and aides believe Republicans will be punished at the polls even more if no bill makes it to the president’s desk.
Separately, conferees are currently hammering out a compromise on the supplemental spending bill — the Senate version of which came out nearly $14 billion bigger than the House version. President Bush has threatened to veto the measure if it comes to his desk much above the $94 billion mark.
But appropriators, known for their bipartisan approach to working through spending bills, are expected to come up with a conference report within the coming days. Those lawmakers will be called on again when some of the regular appropriations bills come up, although few are expected to advance before Nov. 7.
As for other pending bills, immigration conferees should be named within the coming days, while lawmakers in both chambers are seeking to strike final deals on the pension bill and lobbying reform. Republicans also say they may be able to advance legislation targeted at gas prices as well as small-scale health care reforms this year.
One GOP Senate aide said that even while Republicans struggle among each other on some of the pending legislation, there are areas where the party can and will continue to agree.
Expect Republicans, led by Bush, to continue to talk up the country’s economic success and to press for heightened fiscal discipline — an area that has produced electoral gains for the party in the past but has been overshadowed by a ballooning federal deficit in recent years.
“You are going to hear a lot more about spending — and that’s something most of us in both houses can agree on,” a Republican aide said.