House Republicans had the worst day of their majority so far when internal GOP divisions resulted in a pair of unexpected and unwelcome defeats for the new leadership Tuesday.
In the afternoon, Republicans abruptly yanked a bill that would extend expiring Trade Adjustment Assistance programs, which provide worker education and retraining, after it became clear that conservative objections to the spending would doom the floor vote.
A group of 26 Republicans, including eight elected in November, joined progressive Democrats in an unexpected alliance to sink a PATRIOT Act reauthorization bill later in the day. The 277-148 tally fell seven votes short of the two-thirds support needed for passage.
A number of veteran GOP aides privately attributed Tuesday’s setbacks to the growing pains that the new majority will suffer as it gets off the ground. Nevertheless, the two defeats at the hands of conservatives seemed to have caught Majority Leader Eric Cantor off guard.
The Virginia Republican had brought both bills to the floor as suspension votes, a decision that generally indicates confidence in the outcome because it requires a two-thirds majority vote. Bills brought up under a rule, on the other hand, only require 218 votes to pass.
The GOP leadership’s expectation of easy passage was also demonstrated by the fact that Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) did not put his whip operation into action for either bill, aides to rank-and-file Members said Tuesday.
McCarthy and other red-faced Republicans sought to put as much of a partisan spin on Tuesday’s failures as possible by blaming Democrats as best they could.
“Today, Democrats in Congress voted to deny their own administration’s request for key weapons in the war on terror,” McCarthy Press Secretary Erica Elliott said late Tuesday night.
Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), who authored the PATRIOT Act bill, also sought to blame Democrats. “This was nothing but Democrats playing politics with national security, and their arguments ring hollow. ... Democrats decided to play politics tonight, rather than worry about the safety of our country,” he said in a statement.
Republicans also blamed Democrats for the collapse of the TAA bill by linking it to stalled trade pacts with South Korea, Colombia and Panama. “We are working through issues, but the administration’s unwillingness to engage on all three of our pending trade agreements is a real problem and paralyzing the broader trade agenda,” said Jim Billimoria, a spokesman for Ways and Means Chairman Dave Camp (R-Mich.).
But Camp acknowledged the bipartisan nature of the opposition. “I’m looking for support from Republicans and Democrats as well. ... We’re trying to gauge support amongst Republicans and Democrats” for moving forward, he said Tuesday night.
According to GOP aides, Camp had thought he had enough support from Rust Belt Republicans and Democrats to easily pass the TAA bill, but it became clear to the soft-spoken Republican by midday Tuesday that the scheduled vote would fail. The conservative Republican Study Committee had come out against the measure, highlighting the hundreds of millions of dollars in spending under the bill in a review circulated to its members.
Outside groups including the Heritage Foundation also came out against the bill and threatened to designate it as a “key vote,” which would mean a black mark on the record of any Republican who voted for it.
Given the unexpected resistance from Republicans and the fact that strong support from Democrats was not assured, Camp persuaded Cantor to postpone the vote.
While Tuesday’s developments frustrated Republicans, Democrats were pleased. As the PATRIOT Act vote collapsed around Republicans, Reps. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) and Barney Frank (D-Mass.) came off the floor several times to update reporters. “This isn’t going to pass,” a clearly pleased Kucinich said at one point as McCarthy, Cantor and the whip team huddled on the House floor in a futile effort to find some way to salvage the vote.
Conservatives and progressives have long had deep reservations regarding the PATRIOT Act, which they argue infringes on citizens’ right to privacy. The Republican leaders kept the vote open for 35 minutes — about 20 minutes longer than scheduled and, according to Kucinich, in violation of the chamber’s rules — in the hopes of finding more backers, but they ultimately fell short, and Democrats gleefully pounced.
“Holding the vote open is against what they said the rules would be,” said Kucinich, an opponent of the PATRIOT Act bill who had lobbied conservative Republicans to oppose the bill.
“This is a significant defeat for the PATRIOT Act, because what you have here is a coalition of Democrats and Republicans who blocked this from happening,” the Ohio Democrat added.
It remains unclear what the next step is for the PATRIOT Act bill. Cantor could bring the bill back under a rule or under suspension if Republicans are able to find the needed votes for passage.
The office of Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) quickly issued a pithy e-mail response to the day’s action. It noted that neither bill had gone through committee, then simply summed up: “All in all, another rough day for the new majority.”
Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., takes a selfie with his cut-out head during the Hoops for Youth 16th annual charity basketball game held at George Washington University's Smith Center, September 8, 2014. The members of Congress team beat the lobbyist team 46-40. Buy photo here.