The House GOP Coalition That Could Break the Gridlock

By Scott Bland, National Journal

The tea party has been charting the course of the House of Representatives. But a smaller group of House Republicans reasserted its influence in Wednesday’s vote to end the government shutdown, highlighting a possible path toward a more productive Congress.

Thirty GOP House members have now gone against their conference to pass three separate pieces of major legislation this year. They formed the backbone of the group of 87 Republicans who joined every voting Democrat to reopen the government and raise the debt ceiling this week without the support of most of the House’s GOP majority. They also took this course in supporting aid for Hurricane Sandy recovery and reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act earlier this year.

This group of Republicans represents, with most House Democrats, a potential governing caucus on a number of issues moving forward–most immediately, some sort of longer-term budget agreement. The question is whether this potential coalition could get the opportunity to work its will on broader issues or if it is bottled up by the “Hastert rule,” the unofficial principle that legislation does not come to a House vote without the support of a majority of the majority party.

The latter is far more likely; there is a reason the Hastert rule has been violated sparingly so far. But these votes do highlight a potential coalition for bigger legislation in the remainder of this Congress.

On average, the 30 House Republicans who voted against their conference to pass these three bills represent more politically-contested territory than their colleagues. President Obama averaged nearly 45 percent of the vote in those 30 districts in the last election, and these lawmakers include eight of the 17 GOP House members whose districts Obama carried in 2012. Among the 44 House Republicans who voted for at least two of the three bills, every one of them was from a district Obama carried. Meanwhile, in the 116 districts where their Republican members opposed all three of those votes, Obama won less than 37 percent of the vote. (While he won 51 percent nationally, the president averaged just under 40 percent of the vote in Republican-held House districts.)

The coalition also contains some conservative-district Republicans with ties to leadership. Retiring Rep. Spencer Bachus, R-Ala., who represents one of the most Republican-heavy House seats in the country, supported all three bills, going against the majority of his conference. But most of them are from more hotly contested territory. Twenty of the Republicans who joined Bachus in support of all three bills came from districts where Mitt Romney won less than 55 percent of the vote in 2012. Over half of the 80 House Republicans from such districts where Romney didn’t clear 55 percent voted for at least two of these three bills.

Multiple times this year, this unusual coalition of some Republicans and most Democrats has come together to pass legislation through the House. The question is what–if anything–this pattern means for the future. If the Republicans in this coalition feel emboldened by their most recent move, they could make a stronger push to work with Democrats on major legislation in the future.

Rep. Charlie Dent, R-Pa., who was one of the House GOP voices pushing for a clean bill to reopen the government this month, cautioned against automatically applying a coalition that emerged on a few specific issues to a broader legislative agenda. But he didn’t close the door, either.

“Out of this whole situation, I think there are bipartisan working groups both in the Senate and the House that I think are really pushing back on extremes in both parties” to work on legislation that can pass Congress, Dent said. A lot depends, he said, on what those he characterized as “hope yes, vote no” House members decide to do on future issues like taxes or immigration.

If that group is willing to bless floor votes on legislation they oppose with more frequency, that could give the coalition that passed these three bills more opportunities to work in the next months.

There is precedent, from an earlier era of divided government, for major legislation passing without a majority of the House majority. Most notably, a coalition of conservative Democrats and a near-unanimous Republican minority combined to pass President Reagan’s budget in 1981, against the wishes of a majority of House Democrats, who then controlled the lower chamber. House Democrats also provided the passing votes for Reagan’s tax-cut package that year, again joining nearly every Republican.

Former Rep. Martin Frost, a Democrat from Texas, was at the beginning of his 26-year congressional career during that term. He said the political environment that gave the House minority power in 1981 may not apply 22 years later.

“Reagan carried a number of districts that historically had been Democratic and had Democratic congressmen,” Frost said. “So it was in the interest of those members to be seen as supportive of Reagan. That’s not as much the case here.”

That is one of several barriers blocking this potential path. House Republican leaders would also have to acquiesce, which has mostly happened in potential disaster situations thus far–like the response to Hurricane Sandy in New Jersey. It may be an unlikely path for Congress to take after months of unceasing partisan warfare. But Wednesday’s events have illuminated that path again, should Congress choose to take it.

This article appears in the October, 2013, edition of National Journal Daily as Republicans Who Break From Pack Could Pave Way to More Productive Congress.

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