Restive caucuses.

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Congress's Missteps Could Weigh Down Republican Candidates

Albert R. Hunt is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the executive editor of Bloomberg News, before which he was a reporter, bureau chief and executive Washington editor at the Wall Street Journal.
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When the Republican-run Congress convened in January, Senator Cory Gardner, a Colorado freshman, said his party's task was to show it could govern "responsibly" and "maturely."

House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell agreed. As Congress prepares to leave for its August recess, accomplishments, along with maturity, have been in short supply during the first 200 days of the 114th Congress.

Partisanship is pervasive in Washington; much of the problems besetting Boehner and McConnell, however, result from deep divides within their party. The shortcomings include:

  • A stalemate on a long-term transportation/infrastructure measure that most agree is essential. While they approved a short-term fix to ensure that projects don't dry up, House and Senate Republicans publicly demeaned the efforts of the other chamber; their private criticism is unrepeatable in polite company.
  • Senator Ted Cruz of Texas accused McConnell of telling a "flat-out lie." The majority leader then denied Cruz an opportunity to offer an amendment on the floor.
  • Mark Meadows, a backbench House member from North Carolina, filing a motion last month asking Speaker Boehner to "vacate" his post. It was a silly, symbolic gesture, but the first such move in 105 years.
  • A reneging on promises to offer comprehensive alternatives to the Affordable Care Act and immigration reform. Both the House and Senate again staged futile votes to repeal Obamacare while offering no replacement; there was nothing on immigration.

Looming over the return of lawmakers in September are fights over government funding and raising the debt ceiling; the right wing is licking its chops at the prospect.

There have been successes: A government shutdown was avoided, trade promotion authority was passed -- though if there's a Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal later this year, it could be sidetracked by an internal Republican fight over the U.S. Export-Import Bank. In addition, a bipartisan education bill that cleared the Senate with impressive support must be reconciled with a partisan House measure.

Contrary to expectations that he would be a lame-duck, President Barack Obama has dominated Washington politics in the first half of the year, and the congressional Republican majority has often appeared reactive or reactionary.

There is considerable fear among leading Republicans about the funding fights. Conservatives, the rank and file in the House, along with presidential contenders in the Senate, are threatening a government shutdown unless Planned Parenthood is defunded; the concessions that will be demanded for raising the debt ceiling will be greater. Obama, feeling empowered by having no more elections to win, has no intention of bowing to these conservative challenges. 

Washington was incensed by Cruz's language and Meadows's action. But Meadows' office says the outpouring of reaction to his anti-Boehner call was 99 percent favorable. And grassroots Iowa conservatives praised Cruz for taking on a congressional leader.

Top Republicans fear the rise of Donald Trump's presidential candidacy; his attacks on immigrants and trade only exacerbate the party's internal difficulties.

At private sessions in the Capitol, establishment Republicans, including some congressional leaders, realize they can't drive Trump from the race and he may not crater soon. They are considering putting pressure on some of the second-tier candidates to bow out because the real estate mogul might be more vulnerable in a smaller field. That's likely a quixotic mission and hope.

The poor performance of a congressional party has sometimes helped an eventual nominee: Ronald Reagan in 1980 and Barack Obama in 2008. Congressional antics in 2011-12 probably marginally hurt Mitt Romney in the last presidential election.

If Boehner and McConnell are able to avoid a disaster -- a shutdown or debt default -- and pass a highway bill, along with the Pacific trade deal and a few measures next year, any adverse consequences for the party's standard-bearer could be neutralized. If not, the once bright prospects of a Republican Congress will be an albatross for the party.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author on this story:
Albert R. Hunt at ahunt1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net