WASHINGTON — Following President Obama's election in November 2008, Mitch McConnell huddled with his colleagues to map out a simple plan to bring Republicans back into relevancy: stand united against anything the new president and his majorities in Congress wanted.
McConnell and his colleagues couldn't stop the eventual passage of Obamacare. But their united opposition — which held despite repeated efforts by former Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus to pick off deal-making moderates in McConnell's conference — not only undermined the law's effectiveness, they set the tone for the next four years on Capitol Hill.
With Obama entering the homestretch of his presidency, perhaps the biggest unanswered question is whether Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid can replicate McConnell's tight control on his conference and create an effective blockade of Republican legislation over the next 18 months.
Reid's ability to keep moderates and progressives in line on issues large and small could have an enormous impact on the 2016 election. A Senate that is plunged repeatedly into ugly partisan fights could create perpetual crises for presidential hopefuls like Sens. Rand Paul, Marco Rubio, and Ted Cruz.
"This is not Senator Reid's first rodeo. He's been an incredibly effective leader both in the majority and the minority," a senior Senate Democratic leadership aide said Tuesday of Reid's abilities to keep his caucus in line.
It appears that Reid may be pulling a page from his own minority leader playbook already this year.
Despite opposition from the White House to upcoming bills on the Keystone XL pipeline and the medical device tax in Obamacare, both likely to have enough Democratic support to pass the Senate, and Reid appears content to let them pass with nominal opposition and little arm twisting.
That's eerily similar to how Reid opened up his tenure as the new minority leader in 2005. Then, with Republicans riding high from their 2004 drubbing of Senate Democrats, former Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist quickly pushed through two long-sought-after Republican bills: a measure overhauling the nation's bankruptcy laws and a bill to limit class-action lawsuits. Both measures were hotly opposed by the liberal wing of the Democratic Party, but enjoyed some support from moderates, and Reid essentially allowed them to move through the chamber without much of a fight in a show of deference to the 2004 election.
Then Democrats closed ranks. President George W. Bush made their job easier by focusing all of his political capital on a bid to change Social Security, but even lower-profile bills ground to a halt. Before the end of the year it became commonplace for Frist to come to the floor to lament the slow pace of legislating in the Senate.
Democrats close to Reid said to expect a similar dynamic. "Once we get past the low-hanging fruit, the contrasts between Republicans and Democrats are going to be much starker" and Reid's conference will become increasingly united, one former Reid aide said.
When the Democrats will attempt to do that is unclear — though one possibility is when the funding for the Department of Homeland Security runs out in February. The measure was originally designed to give Republicans time to determine how to defund the Obama administration's executive actions on immigration.
Obama will veto any bill that limits his ability to put the immigration actions into effect, and Democrats will likely try to attack Republicans on the issue as extreme.
But if Republicans can craft bills that attack the actions in such a way as to pressure moderate Democrats — for instance, one leadership aide said the bill could include explicit language regarding funding for undocumented sexual predators — it could be the first test of Reid's ability to control his conference.
That ability could also be tested by a handful of other issues. Sen. Elizabeth Warren briefly exerted pressure late last year over a measure that helped Citigroup — she and a handful of other lawmakers represent a real division in how Democrats approach financial issues. Additionally, trouble could come in the form of an Iran sanctions bill or any effort by Republicans to undo Obama's recent executive orders relating to Cuba, both of which will have natural support inside his conference.
But the biggest wild card facing Reid over the next year will be the House. If Republicans opt to ship over high-profile measures that dismantle environmental and labor regulations, tie Obama's hands on immigration, or repeatedly include Obamacare repeal language, you can expect Reid's conference to rally around him — and to a lesser degree the president.
House Republican leaders are, perhaps predictably, bullish.
In his speech accepting the speakership, Speaker John Boehner pointed to the low-hanging fruit the next several weeks are front-loaded with, arguing, "We'll begin our work on this common ground … Then we'll invite the president to support and sign these bipartisan initiatives into law."
"This will be a good start — and more. It will be a sign the logjam is breaking. And it will be a foundation on which to address the bigger challenges," he added.
But Boehner's sunny words are belied by the reality that despite having a sizable majority to operate with, he still has little control over dozens of his most conservative members — nearly all of whom have been the monkey wrench in his legislative machine since he became Speaker in 2010.
For four years Boehner has seen his most carefully laid plans dashed when conservatives, often riled up by outside forces like Heritage Action and Sens. Ted Cruz and Mike Lee, threaten primary challenges against any Republican who falls in line with leadership. Although leadership aides insist a growing majority of the GOP conference is ready to find ways to pass bills that can pass the House, the Senate, and at least occasionally get signed into law by Obama, they acknowledge the Trouble Maker Caucus of conservatives is not.
That dynamic was underscored Tuesday when Boehner saw 25 of his fellow Republicans cast protest votes during the speaker election — including a dozen members who voted for Rep. Daniel Webster, a two-term backbencher who is hardly a household name in conservative circles, let alone the broader public. Even Rep. Scott Rigell, a Virginia Republican not known as a hardliner, voted for Webster despite being given a plum spot on the House Appropriations Committee by Boehner late last year.
"The 25 of us who voted the way we did, we represented the frustration of the American people. I'm surprised we didn't get to 30 to be honest with you," said North Carolina Rep. Walter Jones, a perpetual Boehner antagonist.
Mainstream Republicans, however, downplayed the significance of the rebels.
"I think there are people that want to put more meaning to it than it should have. The key thing is Boehner got 216 votes," said Rep. Steve Stivers.
"I think once you get past this vote we're all one team and move forward. We have to get 218 together of 246 on any vote. That's not that different from last Congress," Stivers added.
John Stanton is a national reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New Orleans. In 2014, Stanton was a recipient of the National Press Foundation’s 2014 Dirksen Award for distinguished reporting of Congress.
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