Staying United Still a Challenge For House GOP

Posted January 14, 2003 at 6:06pm

A net shift of a handful of seats in a House election is no big deal – except when it is. And the shift in the 108th Congress is meaningful.

Republicans, of course, went against the tide of history by gaining seats last November, and exceeded even experts’ Election Day expectations that they might pick up a seat or two. That made the objectively small gain reverberate. And the shift from a six-vote margin to a 12-vote margin gave Republican leaders much more slack in their efforts to pass tough conservative bills on a fast-track schedule with near-pure party-line votes. [IMGCAP(1)]

Still, the change will not always work in the predicted direction. When the margin was six, the pressure on each individual Republican House Member to hold together for the greater good, no matter his or her district or ideology, was enormous. With a margin of 12, and greater slack, the rationale is greater for individuals to vote their districts or consciences.

In some ways, the tasks of the leaders, then, is paradoxically harder. It is harder as well, of course, because the Barbarians (i.e., Democrats) are no longer at the gate (i.e., in charge of the Senate) and no longer the same kind of rallying point for House Republicans. Demonizing Attila the Daschle will be harder to pull off.

Republicans will try to maintain their remarkable unity from a Congress ago with a somewhat different leadership team, signaled by the departure of House Majority Leader Dick Armey (Texas) and the succession to that post of Rep. Tom DeLay (Texas) and the movement up to DeLay’s Majority Whip post by Rep. Roy Blunt (Mo.). By any objective standard, the House Republicans have the A-team in place. DeLay was hands-down the most effective party Whip in modern times; Blunt was a very effective Deputy Whip. They are tough, resourceful and relentless. Joined by the articulate and popular GOP Conference Chairwoman Deborah Pryce (Ohio) and with the avuncular Speaker Dennis Hastert (Ill.), they should be able to prevail on most confrontations with the Democrats.

But the concern about defections clearly was on their minds when the leaders took the extraordinary steps of bypassing seniority on chairmanships. The choice of Rep. Tom Davis (Va.) to chair the Government Reform Committee was not a great surprise, given his bravura performance on the elections and the Speaker’s smoldering resentment of Rep. Christopher Shays’ (Conn.) role on campaign finance reform.

The selection of Rep. Richard Pombo (Calif.) to chair the Resources panel was a more surprising one. It signaled both the pugnacious, ideological stance of the leadership on issues like the environment, and the leadership’s determination to keep Members in line and loyal.

Nonetheless, the challenge to DeLay, as I laid out in a column after the elections, is a considerable one. As Majority Leader, his role becomes much more that of policy leader and public spokesman than inside operator. As Whip, the premium for DeLay was on his relationships with his Republican House colleagues. Despite his reputation as the Hammer, which is based in reality, DeLay has managed to maintain strong personal ties to nearly all of them, regardless of their styles or views. He accommodated repeatedly their individual schedules and needs – the kind of attention to personal detail that breeds gratitude and loyalty – and he worked at it 24 hours a day.

But his relationships with Democrats in the House, with the White House, with the Republican leaders in the Senate, and with the press have far more stresses and strains. Now these relationships take on more importance.

DeLay’s extremely strong policy views – he is, after all, a conservative ideologue – will more regularly have to be subordinated to the needs of the president or the realities of the Senate. If he does not do so – if he lets his own views supersede his leadership position and challenge the president or the Speaker – his call on other Republicans for party loyalty will ring a bit less vividly. And he will have to build on what has been a distantly cordial relationship with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.), his counterpart among Democrats.

Pelosi, of course, has her own challenges. She too has a strong leadership team: Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (Md.), one of the class acts in the House, knows the body better than nearly anybody; Caucus Chairman Bob Menendez (N.J.) is a tough-minded figure with ties among the minority caucuses that will be essential to the leaders; Rep. Robert Matsui (Calif.), who joins the leadership team as chair of the campaign committee, is one of the most respected, wise and thoughtful lawmakers on the Hill; and Rep. John Lewis (Ga.), the new Deputy Minority Whip, is a genuine American hero and moral leader who also commands widespread respect in the chamber.

But if House Democrats are to be effective as a force, the prerequisite is that they unite as a party, across all ideological and regional lines, as a principled opposition to the majority.

That is what House Republicans did during President Bill Clinton’s first two years, and it caused him no end of frustration. No matter how strong their leaders, Democrats will not be as united as Republicans were then or are now; it is not in their nature or makeup. But if Democrats can keep their coherence on votes, and find a coherent voice to project their own alternative positions, they can make life for Republicans more difficult and set the table better for their Senate Democratic counterparts, who have even closer margins to go with the additional assets that come to a minority party in the Senate.

In the 107th Congress, House Democrats did have a pretty coherent voice, but nobody paid attention; they were in the minority, and it was the more divided Senate majority Democrats who got the ink and the airtime. Now, with both chamber contingents in the minority, the House Democrats’ voice may be louder and more noticed.

Pelosi still needs to work a bit on building bridges to her erstwhile party rivals, but her early steps show a leader in command, who knows what she is doing. Despite the showy votes on the floor of a few of her conservative colleagues against her, she will likely maintain strong support from the overwhelmingly majority of House Democrats, in part because of the steps in rules and procedures House Republicans have taken to stick it to the minority. More often than not, Democrats will shout and fulminate, and then lose. But if they can stay more disciplined and focused, the House will be a most interesting place to watch.