What's Wrong With the House GOP?

A bigger conference means more voices, and more moderates, for John Boehner to satisfy.

House Republicans are the victims of their own success.

On the surface, that may seem a rosy diagnosis for a swollen conference beset by divisions across ideological, geographical, and—in recent days—gender lines. Those splits led directly to Speaker John Boehner and his fellow GOP leaders' latest headache: An antiabortion bill that they were forced to pull from the floor Wednesday night, on the eve of the massive March for Life, in the face of a sizable revolt by women and moderates unhappy with the vote that awaited them Thursday morning.

That embarrassment came just a week after more than two dozen centrist Republicans opposed language on an appropriations bill to block President Obama's immigration policies dating back to 2012. And it came two weeks after 25 GOP conservatives opposed Boehner's reelection for Speaker.

As Rep. Charlie Dent, a longtime leader of GOP moderates, put it Wednesday, "I just can't wait for week four."

The fact that Dent is not alone, in that sentiment or in his exotic niche as a moderate Northeasterner, helps explain Republicans' current predicament. The party's overwhelming success in November grew the conference to its largest size in decades, and pushed it into blue and purple-leaning districts where the GOP had seen little success in recent years.

Now those members are here in Washington, and they are realists: They know their fortunes may be far less bright in the presidential campaign year of 2016, and the last thing they want is to hit the trail next fall with a long record full of votes on potentially divisive social legislation, votes they fear could drive away women and young voters and minorities—perhaps for good.

Yet the conference is still dominated by conservatives, eager to use their massive majority to reshape the government and confront Obama. They're tired of hearing the complaints of a relatively small number of centrists, and equally tired of hearing that Senate Republicans don't have the numbers to really get anything done.

Those conservatives don't worry that they'll lose next November, but many do fear the possibility of primary challengers on their right flank asking: Why didn't you beat Boehner? And why did you cave on that abortion bill?

The result is a conference that is largely in agreement about many big-picture issues, especially economic ones, but regularly sweats the small stuff. Even the conservatives are divided: The Republican Study Committee, itself grown too large, splintered this month, with a group of outspoken conservatives vowing to depart and form their own, purer group.

Allies of the leadership have squabbled among themselves too; some of the members closest to Boehner badly want to punish those members who voted against him for speaker, but Boehner himself has resisted. Of the 25 rebels, only two received relatively mild punishments, and several others have gotten the subcommittee gavels they wanted. Three weeks after that vote for speaker, neither side is too happy with the results.

The 114th Congress is less than a month old, and House Republicans, despite their quick succession of stumbles, are unlikely to panic just yet. More fights are looming—on immigration, a budget, the debt ceiling, tax reform, Syria, Iran and more—that could prompt Republicans to unite against Obama and his fellow Democrats.

The leadership's approach so far has been relentlessly optimistic, even in the face of danger: House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy kept insisting Wednesday that the abortion bill was still coming to the floor, right up until it wasn't. Boehner remains well-liked almost across the board, but being liked isn't always the same as being persuasive.

They still have time to get their troops in line for the next battles, but only if they can agree on an agenda that satisfies their disparate constituencies. And only if Boehner and his team can learn to spot Wednesday night's kind of fire ahead of time, and put it out before it spreads.