At a private meeting of House Republicans in January, Majority Whip Steve Scalise told his conference that if they did not effectively block President Obama's executive action on immigration, nothing of genuine importance to the GOP would pass. They would cede their agenda to Senate Democrats for the next two years.
On Tuesday, as the House approved a Senate-passed bill funding the Homeland Security Department without riders targeting Obama's immigration moves, members worried that they did just that.
It is clear, members across the ideological spectrum said this week, that after two months of embarrassing legislative and messaging stumbles, the House Republican Conference is riddled with fundamental and systematic problems. Forget sweeping, ambitious tasks such as tax reform. Even the most basic GOP legislative priorities for the rest of the 114th Congress are now at risk.
"Scalise was absolutely 100 percent [right]. So that brings us where we are. "¦ The next two years are going to be problematical to getting things done," GOP Rep. Scott Garrett said. "That's the truth of it. Once we concede to them controlling the agenda on this "¦ will we ever be able to get any of those bills through the House and the Senate the way we want them to be? The answer is no, because we've just laid the template for all future actions."
What's left is an environment in which members worry that pressing issues coming up over the next several months will not be able to pass. Members fear they will flub a budget, appropriations bills, a fix for the Medicare Sustainable Growth Rate, trade issues, a debt ceiling lift and myriad reauthorizations yet to be taken up.
As leaders recede behind closed doors to take stock of the damage, they have provided few solutions to their frustrated membership. But the display of disunity surrounding the DHS vote has pushed even members friendly to leadership to the point of exasperation. In particular, a failed vote to pass a three-week DHS continuing resolution last week miffed members who were told it would pass and voted for it, only to find 52 Republicans voting it into failure.
Members note privately that the mess of the last few weeks has amplified each of the top leaders' flaws, and they cannot be absolved simply by claiming the conference is unmanageable. Speaker John Boehner, several members and staffers said, has too easily allowed himself to be railroaded into dead-end strategies and, if he believes the strategies do have merit, has not articulated a broader tactical vision to his conference to the point where they can support it.
Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy has been too foolhardy in scheduling bills for floor consideration, they said, failing to build consensus around policies before rushing bills that were largely written during the last Congress to the floor. And Scalise, who campaigned for the post as a would-be bridge between leadership and the right, has yet to prove he can get conservatives to vote for leaders' legislation or get leaders to skew far enough right in their policy proposals.
Members close to leadership said the question of how to move forward in what has become a toxic climate is being discussed, and leaders realize the status quo is not habitable.
In fact, an analogy has been floating around in leadership circles: They are trying to fight the War on Terror using Cold War tactics. The tactical failure was evident not just in the DHS funding bill, but stumbles over the last several weeks on a border security bill, an antiabortion bill, and most recently, a reauthorization of No Child Left Behind—all of which had to be pulled from floor consideration because of a lack of votes.
To be sure, part of the problem is the balkanization of the conference. The group at the center of the most recent dustup, the House Freedom Caucus, formed this year with the explicit intent of pushing Boehner rightward, and has been a relentless headwind against Boehner ever since.
"We're now operating essentially on a coalition government. We've got to figure out how in a coalition government we get to a majority on the bills that come to the House floor, and that may not operate exactly in the same way as we have in the majority in the last couple decades," said one member who is close to leadership. "You now have the Freedom Caucus and the [Republican Study Committee] and the Tuesday Group and a whole set of folks who agree they are broadly under the banner of the Republican Party but they don't necessarily agree on tactics or sometimes policy."
That factionalism was evident on the House floor Tuesday, when Rep. Thomas Massie, a member of the Freedom Caucus, objected to bringing up the Senate-passed bill and spent 20 minutes of floor time along with his colleagues lambasting the failed strategy that produced a cave to what they called Obama's executive amnesty. But Rep. Mike Simpson, who called for the vote on the Senate-passed DHS bill and managed the floor time for members voting for the bill, said Boehner is just as frustrated.
"I think he's frustrated that he has listened to them, he's let them have their say, he's tried to respect their desires and what they want to do, and when those things don't work out, they don't go, 'Oh, I guess that wasn't too smart.' They just keep pushing and keep pushing and keep pushing," Simpson said. "I don't know that you're ever going to make the people on the Far Right happy, as long as you've got the Club for Growth and Heritage Action and all these people beating down on them to get more conservative."
Centrist or pragmatist members such as Simpson are openly urging Boehner to cut the conservatives loose and start striking deals on center-right legislation with moderate Democrats—or at the very least, allow the bills on the floor to fail and then hammer conservatives for voting with Democrats against what leaders view as a good bill.
Conservatives, though, want Boehner to start from their position on most issues, particularly if the final product is not expected to pass the Senate anyway. Might as well start from the farthest point right, they said.
Their frustration with the speaker is only bolstered by the news Tuesday that a Boehner-aligned outside group, American Action Network, is running ads against Freedom Caucus members.
"It does make you scratch your head," Rep. Mick Mulvaney said, "when you're sitting there getting a message from your leadership about how you're supposed to be a team player, you get a text from your office saying the American Action Network ... is running ads against you in the district."
Boehner spokesman Michael Steel noted: "We are forbidden by law from coordinating with outside political groups—but the speaker does not think these ads are helpful."
Voting on some of those issues sought by conservatives endangers members representing more moderate districts, who would have to repeatedly cast votes on ultra-conservative legislation. So leaders are caught in a paradoxical loop of fits and starts to which there may be no resolution. But members said leadership has to try.
"We've got to have discussions within our family and figure out, how do we move forward so we really can govern?" Rep. Diane Black said. "These have got to be serious discussions specifically about what happened last week and how we make sure we get to 218, because we've got the majority and we've got to govern."
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.