For GOP, First 100 Days Have Been A Learning Process

04/08/2015 02:47 pm ET | Updated Apr 08, 2015

WASHINGTON -- Nearly 100 days into their new majority, congressional Republicans have had a harder time than they anticipated proving they're ready to govern.

In the past three months, Republicans have sent doomed legislation approving the Keystone XL pipeline to the president, failed to secure votes on a controversial bill aimed at banning abortions after 20 weeks and battled through a standoff over funding to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). Republican lawmakers in both chambers were able to pass a budget blueprint, but that, too, was a contentious process that highlighted fractures in the party.

A major bump in the road appeared during the Homeland Security debate, in which Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) found themselves in a stalemate, each waiting for the other to move first.

The ups and downs of the past few months have led even the reliably conservative Wall Street Journal to write a scathing review of the new GOP-controlled Congress.

“Republicans in Congress are off to a less than flying start after a month in power, dividing their own conference more than Democrats," the paper's editorial board wrote in February. "The GOP’s restrictionist wing will blame the leadership for a failure they share responsibility for, and the rest of America will wonder anew about the gang that couldn’t shoot straight. The restrictionist caucus can protest all it wants, but it can’t change 54 Senate votes into 60 without persuading some Democrats. It’s time to find another strategy."

It’s that threshold of 60 votes -- the “magic number,” as Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) calls it -- that makes things tricky.

“In the Senate there is never a shortage of drama,” Thune told The Huffington Post.

Yes, the GOP controls both chambers now. But in order to get any bills to President Barack Obama’s desk, Senate Republicans need the votes of at least a few Democrats.

To clear the DHS hurdle while up against the clock, Boehner made multiple attempts to fund the department, ultimately putting a clean spending bill on the floor, free of any riders that would block the president's executive actions on immigration.

That move enraged the conservative wing of the GOP, leaving Boehner grasping for votes and ultimately looking to Democrats for a lifeline.

“For McConnell and Boehner it’s been a learning process," said Ford O’Connell, a Republican strategist. "In both cases the leadership realized it had to be much stronger."

And that’s what the leadership did. On the heels of the messy Homeland Security vote, Republicans moved to pass a budget blueprint that laid out their vision for cutting government spending, repealing Obamacare and boosting military funds.

Just before the Easter recess, the House pulled a risky move to ensure a budget plan would pass, throwing two different blueprints on the floor to appease differing factions of the Republican Party.

The version that ultimately passed, with the call for higher levels of defense spending, was the one party leaders had favored all along. But fiscal hawks within the party made their objections known. And that conservative wing of the party doesn’t plan to quiet down anytime soon.

Rep. Mick Mulvaney (R-S.C.), who voted against the blueprint aimed at boosting defense spending, said he’s disappointed in the priorities of his party's leaders, especially after an election that he says Republicans won because they promised to push back against the administration and Democrats rather than cooperate.

“Hearing from folks back home, the message was, we were supposed to fight,” Mulvaney said.

Asked whether he thought Republicans' infighting and clashes with Democrats would hurt the party's chances in next year's presidential election, Mulvaney said no.

“I really think the House is engaging in an act of hubris if they think they can affect the 2016 election,” he said.

Mulvaney said the different factions of the party are “redefining what it means to be a Republican” and what the party stands for.

On one side, said Mulvaney, are the fiscal hawks like himself who ran for re-election on vows to make deep cuts in spending. On the other side are the defense hawks, who want more military funding.

Mulvaney, one of 26 House Republicans who voted against the budget with increased defense spending, said that party conservatives are “tired” of their amendments being pushed aside.

"We will continue to push war hawks on accountability and responsibility on spending,” he said. “The top-down management style is finished. This will be last leadership team that engages in top-down leadership."

A top House GOP aide disagreed with Mulvaney's characterization, arguing that the budget process used a “more bottom-up approach” by allowing votes on differing plans. The aide, who asked not to be named, said the GOP will continue to use similar approaches as the House moves forward.

Michael Steel, a spokesman for Boehner, said Republicans have “gotten off to a fast start.”

“We’re working with our members to deal with tough, complicated issues -- but we’re facing them head-on, rather than ducking,” Steel said. “For example, our budget balances in less than 10 years, while President Obama’s never, ever balances -- ever.”

Despite friction within the party on the DHS battle, and again on crafting a budget blueprint, Republican leaders don't appear too concerned.

“I think any given day, it’s a heavy lift in the House, because you have got a lot of very diverse caucus members on the Republican side,” said Thune, the third-ranking Senate Republican.

“The one thing that strikes me about the House is that after DHS, which was problematic on a lot of levels, was that later on with the budget and [the Medicare fix vote], they came together,” he said.

The House GOP aide echoed that sentiment. While acknowledging the rockiness of the past few months, the aide said the recent budget vote “showed that the conference could come together on big issues as a party.”

At some point, Thune said, the party will have to recognize the importance of functioning as a team.

Moving forward, however, it may get trickier for McConnell to continue with regular order, given the approaching deadlines on the debt limit, highway funding and more.

Next up, the Senate and House will go to conference over the budget plans passed last month, a process that will involve reconciling the numbers on defense spending and determining a way forward on repealing Obamacare.

Democrats have said that a major sticking point for them is the need for more funding to non-defense programs. For every extra defense dollar, Democrats say they want a dollar for domestic projects.

Thune said his party is interested in fixing sequestration on defense but not much else, hinting at a bumpy road ahead for spending bills.

“Our folks will want to do everything we can on defense. It will be hard to probably part with the discipline we put in place on non-defense sequester caps,” Thune said. “I’d be surprised if there was much Republican support for that.”

For their part, Democrats are betting Republicans will fall apart during conference over the budget when Congress returns.

Matt Mackowiak, a Republican strategist, urged the party to be careful as it moves toward key deadlines.

“Years ago we didn’t have a tea party and the conservative rebellion in the party. It has made governing much more difficult and put much more pressure on political leaders,” Mackowiak said.

"Any time you don’t have the White House, you sometimes are leaderless," he went on. "[Without a] clearly unified leadership, times are going to be messy."

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