The most conservative lawmakers in the House Republican majority have gotten their way a lot in recent years. That may be starting to change.
A group of more pragmatic lawmakers defected on an immigration vote last week, and this week forced GOP leaders to water down abortion legislation. With the new, fully Republican-led Congress three weeks old, they are serving notice they will no longer keep quiet as their more ideological colleagues push legislation to the right, demand votes on social issues, or court government shutdowns to try to block President Barack Obama.
“There’s a growing sense in the conference that we need to get things done here, not just make political statements,” said Rep. Carlos Curbelo of Florida, a freshmen lawmaker. “We should be focused on the agenda of the American people and not on taking an infinite amount of symbolic votes that aren’t going to get anything done.”
Most of these lawmakers are self-described conservatives themselves, but with a practical, business-friendly approach, and without the uncompromising purity of some on the right. Some, like Curbelo, were elected in districts Obama previously won as Republicans posted dramatic midterm gains in November. They are looking at running for re-election in 2016 in a presidential election year when turnout of Democrats could be higher.
Now they are behind a new dynamic in the House after years when conservatives in the party caucus seemed to call the shots. GOP leaders had been forced into one embarrassing retreat after another on legislation, and the federal government had been propelled into a partial 16-day shutdown in the fall of 2013 in a failed attempt to shut down Obama’s health law.
In part, the change is because there are more of the new lawmakers. And, they say, the stakes are now higher. With the Senate now under GOP control, House-passed legislation actually has a shot at making it to Obama’s desk.
“Much of the legislation we passed in the past we knew wasn’t going to go anywhere in the Senate; we knew Harry Reid wasn’t going to bring it up for a vote,” said Rep. Renee Ellmers, R-N.C., who led this week’s revolt over the abortion bill. “Now everything we do has got to be so careful, we have to be so careful about the legislation we put forward, because now we have that opportunity for it to pass in the Senate.”
Indeed the House in 2013 passed an abortion bill nearly identical to the one that leadership was forced to scuttle this time around, which would have banned nearly all abortions after 20 weeks. Instead the bill that passed Thursday, timed to coincide with the annual March for Life, would ban all federal funding for abortion, something that’s already mostly in place anyway.
As the new Congress got underway at the beginning of this month, conservatives appeared poised to continue throwing their weight around. Two dozen conservatives voted against House Speaker John Boehner in his leadership election, failing to oust him but boasting historically high defections. Then, as Republicans sought to use a Department of Homeland Security spending bill to oppose executive actions by Obama on immigration, conservatives pushed for language to unravel protections Obama had granted to immigrants brought illegally to the country as children — exposing those young people to eventual deportation.
The amendment on immigrant kids passed last week, but it did so by a narrow margin as 26 Republicans opposed it, exposing deep unease among some lawmakers over the direction House Republicans were taking in the new Congress’ opening days. On Wednesday, those concerns burst into the open as lawmakers rebelled against the initial version of the abortion bill, forcing House leaders to beat a retreat and setting up a new, ongoing challenge for a leadership that’s previously worried mostly about its right flank.
“Week one we had a speaker’s election that didn’t go as well as a lot of us would have liked. Week two we got in a big fight over deporting children, again something that a lot of us didn’t want to have a discussion about. Week three we’re now talking about rape and incest and reportable rapes, incest for minors but not for women of the age of majority. I just can’t wait for week four,” said Rep. Charlie Dent, R-Pa. “My own view on this stuff is I prefer we as a Republican conference avoid these very contentious social issues.”
Associated Press writers Connie Cass and Charles Babington contributed to this report.
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