Former Vice President Dick Cheney couldn't help but gloat, if only in jest, when he visited the House Republican whip team last week in the Capitol.
When he served as minority whip in 1989, he never lost a vote, Cheney said. He added, of course, that it might have had something to do with the fact that he only held the post for two-and-a-half months, before being appointed Secretary of Defense by President George H.W. Bush.
"I batted 1.000 as a whip," he told the GOP whips last Monday, according to a source in the room. "I'm glad I'm not one now."
Majority Whip Steve Scalise has not batted so high in his first few months on the job. The GOP Conference is arguably more fractured than ever, and the Louisiana Republican has thus far failed to deliver on his promises to bring conservatives into the fold. Scalise has simply not shown that he can corral the rebellious right flank any better than his predecessor, now-Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, members said privately.
So far this year, party whips have failed to find a middle ground in the conference to pass a controversial abortion bill, border security legislation, and a reauthorization of No Child Left Behind—and consequently, all three bills were pulled indefinitely from House consideration. House Republican Conference members have spent the first two months of 2015 fighting amongst themselves and with their counterparts in the Senate, rather than forming a unified Republican congressional front against President Obama.
But the frustration hit a head earlier this month, when the whip team came to the House floor believing they were within striking distance of passing a three-week extension of Homeland Security Department funding. Leaders thought the vote could give them time to hammer Senate Democrats and work out a longer-term solution. Instead, they were rebuffed by a staggering 52 members of their conference in an embarrassing defeat for GOP leadership.
"How do we not know a vote count that was so wide as that?" said one member who is close to leadership, speaking anonymously to discuss internal conference dynamics. "I want to see him succeed, but how many more of these can we withstand?"
The tension reached such a crescendo that by the time a final vote to extend DHS funding for the rest of the year came to the floor last Wednesday, one of Scalise's five senior deputy whips, Rep. Dennis Ross, offered to resign his leadership post because he did not want to support the bill, National Journal has learned.
Scalise had warned earlier this year that members who do not support leaders on procedural motions should not be on the whip team, a policy that has already caused two members to part ways with the group. Ross felt that after promising constituents in his Florida district that he would never support a bill that did not block Obama's executive action on immigration, he could not in good conscience vote against a procedural motion that would have killed the Senate-passed bill, according to sources familiar with the encounter. Scalise did not accept his resignation.
Scalise's and Ross's offices declined to comment.
Not only has Scalise been unable to bring the conservative members on board, he is actively being out-whipped by them, members said. The House Freedom Caucus, an upstart group of hardline Republicans, is becoming increasingly influential in the conference, and in the case of the DHS vote, their strident objections to any clean bill caused even members who might otherwise vote with leadership to turn their backs. In the final stretch on the House floor, the task of passing the three-week bill became so Sysiphean that Scalise did not even engage his senior deputy whips, according to two members with knowledge of the operation.
"When we started the process, two hours ahead, we still had a shot. "¦ There were people who thought maybe we could get there," said another member familiar with the process. "As we would get someone new, they would pull someone off. "¦ It wasn't just the hardcore members. They were pulling people with them because of people who share media markets or people that are concerned about [outside] groups because they neighbor someone."
That problem, for instance, had Rep. Diane Black fuming. She voted for the three-week bill thinking it would pass, only to find every other Nashville-area Republican voted against it.
Black released a blistering statement that night saying she was disappointed in all 52 colleagues who voted against the bill and calling it a missed opportunity to keep fighting the president's immigration policy. But her frustration extended also to leadership, who she thinks hung her out to dry, said sources familiar with the conference's dynamics—and she is not the only one.
At the same time, Scalise's team is also being out-whipped by Democrats.
Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Minority Whip Steny Hoyer have so far kept a nearly airtight lock on their conference when they urge their members to vote a certain way. (Their job, of course, is easier given that so many moderate and conservative Democrats lost their seats to Republicans in recent years.) That could spell trouble for Republicans moving forward, especially if they decide to cut their conservatives loose and try to wrangle Democratic votes to pass center-right legislation. The fact is, there are simply fewer moderate Democrats to work with.
Part of the problem, members feel, is that Scalise overpromised. He said in his campaign that as the only Southerner at the leadership table and an avowed conservative, he could work with the far-right segment of the conference to not only secure their votes but bring their ideas into legislation pushed by the leadership. He did that with a border security bill late last year, and claimed victory to the press.
But that caused tension around the leadership table, a tension some members believe still is evident in the miscommunication between McCarthy and Scalise when bills routinely come up for a vote, only to be pulled for lack of votes. McCarthy's camp saw Scalise's victory lap as a slap in the face, and viewed Scalise's promises as a rebuke of his own rocky time as whip.
"It was as if he was going to win votes that we used to lose," said one lawmaker. "I think the results haven't borne out."
Though Scalise's team does not comment on the record about whip operations, those close to him say privately that it would be unfair to place burden squarely on his shoulders—and even those members critical of the first two months agree the problems go much deeper than just what the whip team can control. For instance, his defenders said the agenda McCarthy set for the first two months of 2015 has been too aggressive for members and the bills they brought up were crafted last year, making it difficult to get buy-in from the new Congress..
They also note that the Freedom Caucus is presenting leaders with such ideological rigidity that it's not clear anyone could move them. That is especially true on issues like abortion, immigration, and Common Core, on which perhaps no leader could find consensus in the factionalized Republican Conference. The leadership-friendly members who turned their back on the team, allies said, are being too thin-skinned, worrying about primary challenges that will likely never materialize.
Still, Scalise's allies present no public answers about how to fix the process, beyond a family conversation. With a full slate of difficult votes still ahead, members know something has to change. When they return from a weeklong district work period, having had to explain to their constituents why the conference bowed to Obama's executive action rather than fight to the end like they promised, it is clear that answers from leadership is what they will need.
Correction: Dick Cheney was a minority whip in 1989 for the Republicans.
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Daniel Newhauser is a staff correspondent for National Journal, where he primarily covers the House of Representatives. He was formerly a House leadership reporter for Roll Call, where he started as an intern in 2010 and quickly earned a slot as a beat reporter.
A native of San Antonio, Texas, Newhauser traveled further West to study journalism at Arizona State University's Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication and write for newspapers including the East Valley Tribune and the Green Valley News & Sun.