How Boehner, McConnell are managing their party hard-liners differently

While House Speaker John Boehner denied two members reappointment to a powerful committee, Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell meted out no such retribution. The difference lies with how the two chambers work.

Lauren Victoria Burke/AP
House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio takes question during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, Jan. 8, 2015.

Carrots versus sticks. Honey versus vinegar. Whatever metaphor you use, the Republican leaders of the House and Senate have a choice as to how to manage their renegade right wing – and this week highlighted starkly different approaches.

In the House, Speaker John Boehner (R) of Ohio meted out retribution for two party rebels who voted against him for a third term as speaker: He denied their reappointment to the most powerful committee in the House.

In the Senate, however, two tea party darlings who last month had seriously crossed incoming Republican majority leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky received no such reprimand when committee assignments were announced Wednesday evening. They were simply reassigned to their previous committees – albeit the panels weren’t the A-list appropriations or finance committees.

The different approaches are not so much a reflection on the leaders, but on the culture and politics of their institutions.

“Alienating a single House member is far less consequential than alienating a single senator,” explains Ross Baker, a congressional expert at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J.

For one thing, a House member can’t bring the chamber to its knees through a filibuster the way a senator can. “Right then and there, you have an incentive on Boehner’s part to lay on the lash and an incentive on McConnell’s part to spare the rod,” he says.

Mr. Baker’s observation is no inside-the-Beltway navel-gazing. Managing party renegades is central to a productive Congress. The past two Congresses – starting in 2011, just after the tea party wave election – have been the least productive in US history, featuring a partial government shutdown and fiscal brinkmanship.

The leaders of the GOP-controlled Congress won’t be able to deliver on their promise to show that Republicans can govern – or aren’t “scary,” as Senator McConnell put it in a recent interview with The Washington Post – if they can’t keep hard-liners in line.

Even before he took the helm of the Senate this week, McConnell was ladling the honey to members who could potentially cause trouble – including likely presidential candidates who will be averse to deals with the White House.

In an interview with the Lexington Herald-Leader immediately after his reelection in November, McConnell said that if GOP Sen. Rand Paul – a fellow Kentuckian and independent-minded libertarian – runs for president, “he’ll be able to count on me.” That amounts to an endorsement before a candidate has even declared.

In December, when Sen. Marco Rubio (R) of Florida – another possible presidential candidate – took the GOP lead in lambasting President Obama’s plan to normalize relations with Cuba, McConnell said he would defer to Senator Rubio’s expertise on the subject. As the new chairman of the Senate subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere, Senator Rubio has promised to do all he can to “unravel” normalization.

In contrast, Speaker Boehner acted swiftly in denying GOP Florida Reps. Daniel Webster of Florida (who ran against the speaker for his job) and Richard Nugent (who voted for Congressman Webster) reappointment to the Rules Committee. Nothing comes to the floor without first going through that committee, which is often described as the House traffic cop.

Many of Boehner’s allies would like him to go further, given that 25 Republicans deserted him in the speakership vote – the biggest in-party rebellion in a speakership ballot in modern political history.

But at a press conference on Wednesday, Boehner seemed to soften, saying that he was having a “family conversation” with his caucus about loyalty. He left open the possibility that the two reprimands might be only temporary.

The reason has to do with another reality of the House: the number 218. Boehner needs that number of votes to pass legislation, giving him a cushion of 28 votes to spare within his own caucus.

Although that’s a substantially bigger cushion than before the election, it can quickly disappear – given that House hard-liners are answering to ideological voters and not to the speaker, whose popularity has plummeted among tea party types.

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