The bruising fight over the October government shutdown and the awkward struggle to figure out how to deal with the recent debt ceiling increase left House Republicans with a choice. Should they A) continue trying to reach consensus on big picture items, or should they B) spend 2014 in campaign mode? Apparently, they're picking B. As California Rep. Devin Nunes said to The Washington Post's Robert Costa: "We don't have 218 votes in the House for the big issues, so what else are we going to do?"
One possible answer to that question is: Find consensus with the Democratic minority on compromise proposals that could get a majority of support in the House and be driven by the Republican majority. But in a caucus obsessed with the Hastert Rule (the majority must have enough votes by itself to pass any legislation in the House) and the Boehner Rule (no new spending without equivalent cuts), that will not do. So, Costa reports, "Republicans are focused on calming their divided ranks" by not raising any controversial measures requiring that they build consensus.
"We can do a few things on immigration and work on our principles," Nunes continued, "but in terms of real legislating, we're unable to get in a good negotiating position." By which he apparently means: A negotiating position from which a Republican majority can reach consistent agreement. "In the House, we’ve got 30 guys who don’t want to support anything, ever, unless it balances the budget next year," he said — and those 30, from the far-right fringe of the party, mean the House can't add up to 218. As ABC's Rick Klein put it, "This is less a choice than it is an admission that House Republicans don’t have an effective majority when it comes to getting big things done."
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor dutifully blamed President Obama for not seizing upon a post-State of the Union Address letter the Republican leadership sent to him with a few suggested areas in which they might work together. But the scale of even those suggestions, all relatively small tweaks and obvious subsets of Obama's own stated priorities, hardly inspire confidence in a caucus that can't wait to tackle big issues. During the party's retreat last month, a number of big picture ideas were floated, including figuring out an official party position on poverty. Now, according to Costa, emphasis on poverty as a campaign issue is "fizzling" in favor of small ball, easily palatable measures aimed "at courting swing voters."
There's no guarantee that this apathy holds. In part, it's a response to the weird back-and-forth Republican leaders had in trying to get the debt ceiling increase passed earlier this month. The party marched through a litany of possible "demands" from the president, all of which were doomed from the outset, and then eventually just passed a clean bill while shrugging. This new to-Hell-with-it attitude may be a short-term reaction to the idea of trying to get people together on a more tricky issue. Like immigration, which sources have repeatedly indicated might come up for a vote after the Republican primary season. Nunes left the door open for some immigration reform movement as well.
But who knows! Doing nothing seemed like official Capitol Hill policy in 2013, and the upcoming elections are unlikely to inspire a huge push for tackling big issues. Maybe Congress will never do anything again; then we don't have to whip any votes or send any letters to anyone. Somewhere Eric Cantor pauses, thinks for a moment, and slowly starts to nod.