The Republican Congress Meets Reality

One month in, all those campaign promises about making Washington work are turning out to be difficult for the GOP to keep.

Joshua Roberts/Reuters

Republicans promised to do a couple of things right away if given control of Congress. One was to pass a bill to build the Keystone XL oil pipeline. Another was to open up the Senate processes that they charged the Democrats had bottlenecked during their time in the majority.

This week, the GOP fulfilled both promises, passing the Keystone bill by a 62-36 vote after a lengthy debate. (The measure still must go back through the House before going to meet its doom on the desk of President Obama, who has promised a veto.) Even some Democrats lauded the orderly process and free-for-all amendments: "What I've seen on the floor the last several weeks is the Senate I remember, the Senate I was elected to," Illinois Senator Dick Durbin said. But it wasn't without snags, and if there's anything to be learned from the first month of Republican control, it may be that changing the ways of Washington will be harder than the GOP made it sound.

Keystone was supposed to be the low-hanging fruit Republicans could pluck right away. Back in November, with Democrats still in the majority, a similar measure failed by a single vote. But as the GOP tried to push the bill through last week, Democrats cried foul. They pointed to new Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's promise to open up the amendment process over which now-Minority Leader Harry Reid previously exerted a stranglehold, something both Democrats and Republicans complained about at the time. The bill was delayed and ended up taking all month.

It's not going to get any easier: The Senate's next task is to pass funding for the Department of Homeland Security, which will open a messy debate over immigration enforcement. The department's funding runs out at the end of February. Another piece of legislation that was supposed to easily garner bipartisan buy-in, an attempt to impose tougher sanctions on Iran, is already running into trouble as Democrats get cold feet. That more or less exhausts the list of achievable items on the agenda of the Republican-led Congress.

And that's not even mentioning the high-profile shenanigans that have consumed the House, where some had speculated that the Republicans' gargantuan majority—the biggest since the 1930s—might empower Speaker John Boehner and give him room to maneuver. Instead, Boehner received a record number of dissents to his election as speaker, thanks to ongoing dissatisfaction from conservatives, and has since had to deal with blow-ups on immigration and abortion. As Pennsylvania Representative Charlie Dent, an outspoken Republican moderate, memorably lamented:

Week one, we had a speaker election that did not go as well as a lot of us would have liked. Week two, we got into a big fight over deporting children, something that a lot of us didn't want to have a discussion about. Week three, we are now talking about rape and incest and reportable rapes and incest for minors … I just can't wait for week four.

That was last week. In week four, it turned out, conservatives turned against a tough proposed border-security bill that was intended as a sop to them because they thought it might pave the way for further reform of the immigration system.

House dysfunction is nothing new, though there had been some hope it might abate with consolidated Republican control. But the combined convulsions of the House and Senate stand in stark contrast to the GOP's election promises about putting Congress back to work and ending gridlock on Capitol Hill. They campaigned on this because it sounded good, and because they didn't have a lot more to offer, policy-wise: I was there and can confirm that Republican candidates were not, for the most part, out on the stump making a rousing pitch for free-trade agreements and repealing the medical-device tax. It was, on the other hand, common to hear them cast Reid as an iron-fisted tyrant whose abuse of the Senate had the Founders rolling in their graves. But the new dawn they promised isn't looking very different from last year's gridlock.

Democrats, naturally, are relishing this. As New York Senator Chuck Schumer told Politico with a grin, "They’re just tied in knots. They’re learning that being in charge isn’t so easy and isn’t so much fun.” It wasn't long ago that Democrats were bemoaning the kinds of delaying tactics they're now utilizing as Republican obstruction; now, they're gloating. "Mitch McConnell promised a lot of things that are impossible" thanks to the structural realities of the Senate, Adam Jentleson, Reid's spokesman, told me. "Now reality is setting in." I asked if he was sympathetic, given his own experience with those same realities. Jentleson laughed.

McConnell's camp counters that the Keystone vote shows that the Senate is working, just as its new leader promised it would. "Keystone has shown we can return to regular order and get things done," Brian McGuire, McConnell's chief of staff, told me. Fair enough. It just may not be a lot of things, and they may take a while.