Rise of the Republican Pragmatists

Expect the new GOP majorities in Congress to press forward with a governing agenda, avoiding the intra-party conflicts of years past.

In Washington, narratives last long past their sell-by date. One of the most common tropes is that Republicans are controlled by the far-right wing of the party and have little ability to govern. That was certainly true for several years, in the wake of their party's wipeouts in 2006 and 2008, along with the subsequent tea-party wave in 2010 that gave Republicans control of the House. Of the 66 Democratic seats that House Republicans picked up that year, more than half (36) were in solidly red districts John McCain carried in the 2008 presidential election. Many of those newly elected members hailed from the GOP's tea-party wing, reflecting their conservative constituencies. With little room to maneuver, House Speaker John Boehner had trouble managing a fractious caucus and found himself battling his own party as much as the Democrats. The 2013 government shutdown marked the party's low point, with leadership at the mercy of several dozen uncompromising conservative backbenchers.

But many pundits are mistakenly looking to the past to determine the future of the new Republican-controlled Congress. With Republicans determined to improve their image in the run-up to a presidential election, and a crop of new, more-pragmatic members heading to Washington, all the signs suggest that the GOP will be eager to unite and advance a legislative agenda.

This year's congressional majorities were built on the victories of center-right candidates, not the bomb-throwers who disrupted their party's leadership over the past two years. Of the 16 House Republicans who picked up seats for the party, 11 of them represent districts President Obama carried in 2012. And the freshman Senate class may be filled with conservatives, but ones who have expressed willingness to work across party lines.

The next generation's pragmatism is no accident. Republicans, led by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and aided by outside groups, worked assiduously to intervene in primaries, ensuring that far-right candidates like Chris McDaniel and Milton Wolf didn't win nominations.

The biggest bellwethers in determining how unified the new Republican-controlled Senate will be are four newly elected conservative stalwarts: Sens.-elect Tom Cotton of Arkansas, Joni Ernst of Iowa, Ben Sasse of Nebraska, and Dan Sullivan of Alaska. Three were endorsed by the antitax Club for Growth, while a fourth was a Sarah Palin favorite. But all of them had strong support from the establishment, too, and Republican leaders expect they will be team players in the new Senate.

Add North Carolina's Thom Tillis—a former legislative leader who has expressed interest in chairing the National Republican Senatorial Committee—and Colorado's Cory Gardner, who called on the GOP to govern with "maturity" in a Sunday show appearance last week, to the mix of incoming senators who are eager to govern, not obstruct. In sum, most are unlikely to become Ted Cruz acolytes and cause problems for McConnell.

"All of them ran because they want the Senate to be a functioning institution. They're not looking for crisis moments as leverage points," said Billy Piper, a former chief of staff to McConnell. "This is a pretty unified bunch."

That's not to say the new wave isn't conservative, but there's a huge distinction between being conservative and being uncompromising. All of these GOP senators-elect have an interest in policy, and already showcased governing aptitude. Cotton, Sullivan, and Ernst (all military veterans) could join the party's group of foreign policy hawks, led by Sens. McCain, Lindsey Graham, and Kelly Ayotte. Sasse, a policy wonk, could team up with Sen. Mike Lee on proposing Obamacare alternatives.

Gardner, who made inroads with Hispanics in his election, could be a point person on immigration reform if the Senate tackles the issue. Shelley Moore Capito, the first Republican elected to the Senate from West Virginia since 1956, is likely to take up energy issues as part of her portfolio. These aren't Republican nihilists at all.

In the House, GOP critics have highlighted the far-right positions by a handful of new members, like Georgia's Jody Hice, Wisconsin's Glenn Grothman, and Alabama's Gary Palmer. But the more significant development is that, with at least 12 more Republicans in the conference—a number that could reach 15 after recounts—Boehner now has significantly more wiggle room to manage his caucus, even with some defections from the party's right flank. In the new Congress, he will be able to afford about 30 GOP defections and still pass legislation through the lower chamber.

Equally as important, Boehner has a new roster of allies representing blue districts who need to hew to the middle for political survival. The House freshman class will include the only Jewish Republican in the House (New York's Lee Zeldin); the youngest female congresswoman in history (New York's Elise Stefanik); two African-American Republicans (Texas's Will Hurd and Utah's Mia Love); and two new Hispanic members (Florida's Carlos Curbelo and West Virginia's Alex Mooney). Over two-thirds of the Republicans who picked up Democratic-held seats represent blue districts that Obama carried in 2012.

My colleague Ron Fournier is right in rejecting the notion that Republicans won a mandate with their decisive election victory. After all, the main GOP message in the midterms was opposing Obama's policies, not outlining details of their own. But winning control of Congress presents Republicans with a golden governing opportunity—one that many leading members, including McConnell, have been preparing for for many months.

It's no coincidence that McConnell came prepared to outline GOP priorities the day after the election—highlighting issues with potential bipartisan support on energy, tax reform, and trade. Or that Sen. Marco Rubio and Rep. Paul Ryan are formulating their own reforms to the president's health care law that will be unveiled during the next Congress. Republicans are flipping the script from years past, eager to propose legislation, wondering if Obama will be the one to block them.

Obama won't be able to rely on dated talking points, stereotyping the GOP as out of the mainstream to get things accomplished. His goal should be finding areas of compromise with the opposition to salvage a tumultuous second term so far. There are signs that this reconstituted Republican majority is different from the one in years past. The coming months will determine whether the president is up to the challenge.