Republicans Might Finally Be Willing to Play Nice in Congress

Despite Obama's adversarial tone in the State of the Union, Representative Aaron Schock thinks his party will be more willing to cooperate with Democrats this year.
Representative Aaron Schock, Republican of Illinois (Associated Press)

Representative Aaron Schock has a metaphor for the Tea Party: They're the toddlers of Congress.

"Like a little kid, you’ve got to teach them: When you touch a hot stove, it’s gonna burn ya. Some of them have touched the hot stove," he said during a discussion hosted by The Atlantic and National Journal on Wednesday. The "hot stove" in question includes the handful of recent dramas that have been politically disastrous for both parties, including the government shutdown, debt-ceiling showdowns, and endless Obamacare battles.

Schock, just 32 years old himself and four years into his tenure in Congress, made a point of emphasizing how a lack of legislative experience has crippled the GOP's agenda. "The newsflash is half the Congress wasn’t here when the president first showed up. Half the Congress wasn’t here when healthcare passed. Half the Congress is not used to the institutional process." This is at least part of what caused the the fall's dysfunction, Schock thinks—unrealistic attitudes about how individual politicians should push partisan agendas.

This gridlock has created frustration in and outside of Washington. In a Gallup poll this fall, just nine percent of Americans approved of how Congress is doing. And in his address to the nation on Tuesday night, President Obama took a defiant tone toward the legislative branch, capitalizing on this spirit of citizen annoyance. He emphasized the power of executive orders, touting "the pen and the phone" as his tools of choice for accomplishing policy goals in 2014. 

But according to Schock, Obama might be striking a prematurely aggressive posture. Even though congressional leadership is gearing up for yet another debt-ceiling debate this spring, Schock says that extreme threats like another government shutdown won't be part of the GOP strategy—even for Tea Partiers. "When you look at some of the more conservative members of the conference ... they are now saying they are not going to shut the government down," he said. 

Since the 2012 elections, a handful of "more conservative members" of the GOP have had an outsized influence on Republican politics. "Depending on deaths and retirements and resignations, we have about a 15-seat swing" on legislative votes, Schock said. "The challenge for us is that 15, 16 members of Congress can become the ex officio speakerit becomes very difficult, then, to govern."

If Schock is right about his party's most partisan members backing off hardline strategies, 2014 might look a lot different from 2013. He expressed hope for bipartisan collaboration on immigration reform, tax reform, and trade policy. But it's also possible that Schock is just an especially vocal proponent of a view that's still a minority among House Republicans. "I have been very outspoken with my leadership, using the news media, that we need to negotiate bipartisan agreements in the House," he said.

"Using the news media," indeed. Schock may be right about the year ahead in the House, but as that comment indicates, it's a little hard to tell whether his predictions are based on insider knowledge or are just an example of skilled spin. He may just be a vocal proponent of a collaborative Congress that everyone—including the president—has stopped believing in. 

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Emma Green is the assistant managing editor of TheAtlantic.com, where she also writes about religion and culture.

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