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National Politics|By Amy Walter, February 5, 2014

Not so long ago, Speaker John Boehner was the leader of an undisciplined, deeply divided majority that seemed bent on self-destruction. Now, just three months after the disastrous GOP-led government shutdown, Boehner looks like a man in control of his party and his own legislative destiny. He’s lashed out at outside groups who have been stirring up discontent within the ranks. He’s passed legislation like the Farm Bill and the budget deal over the objections of Tea Party groups. Just a few days ago he was looking relaxed and comfortable joking with Jay Leno about spray tans and internal GOP dysfunction on the Tonight Show. Moreover, there’s now serious talk about an immigration bill passing the House. And no one in the party is (seriously) threatening to hold the debt ceiling vote hostage.

After digging themselves into a deep hole at a seemingly unstoppable pace, Boehner and his party realized that they had finally hit rock bottom. And, like many who have hit that place, they seem to have realized they have nowhere to go now but up.

Plus, Republicans have seen their numbers go up in recent weeks. In the immediate wake of the government shut-down last October, Republicans were trailing Democrats in the generic ballot test by eight points. By January, they were statistically tied with Democrats on the question of who voters prefer in Congress.

Congressional Ballot Test (Question: If the election were held today, would you vote for a Republican or Democrat in your congressional district? or Who would you like to see in control of Congress next year?)

Oct. ‘13D+8D+8D+8
Jan. ‘14R+1D+2R+2
This bump for Republicans comes despite the fact that somewhere between 71-76 percent of Americans disapprove of the job they are doing in Congress.

The most important question now is whether House Republicans can stay on the straight and narrow for the rest of the year or whether they will fall off the wagon and give Democrats some badly needed ammunition for the fall fight.

The Republicans to watch over these next few weeks, however, aren’t the ones that are getting the most press attention. The balance of power isn’t with GOP Reps. like Justin Amash (MI) or Michele Bachmann (MN). Instead, it’s with Reps. like Robert Aderholt (AL) and Rob Bishop (UT).

The Cook Political Report has broken down the House GOP conference into three major categories: the “Coalition of the Willing”, the “Deciders”, and the “Coalition of the Unwilling.” The 61 members of “Coalition of the Willing” are those Republicans who most often vote with the GOP leadership on bi-partisan legislation, while the “Coalition of the Unwilling” is made up of 63 Republicans who almost always vote against bi-partisan legislation. The “Deciders”, however, are the 105 Republican House members who split their votes, sometimes siding with the leadership, sometimes voting against it.

After digging themselves into a deep hole at a seemingly unstoppable pace, Boehner and his party realized that they had finally hit rock bottom.

The key to Boehner’s success lies within that group of “Deciders”, more specifically a group of 63 Republicans we have dubbed the “Skeptics.” These Republicans voted against three key pieces of bi-partisan legislation in early 2013: Aid following Hurricane Sandy, the Reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act, and the Shutdown Deal/CR this fall. Almost all voted for the more conservative Farm Bill this June that failed when Democrats, decrying the bill’s deep cuts in the food stamp program, abandoned it in droves.

Since December, however, these “Skeptics” have been solid allies of leadership, supporting the December Paul Ryan-Patty Murray budget deal and the recently passed Farm Bill. Meanwhile, almost all of the 27 Republicans who have voted against every major piece of bi-partisan legislation last year (we have dubbed them the “Rebels”), voted against the budget and Farm Bill deals as well. In other words, these 24-27 GOPers are going to pretty much vote against anything that leadership likes.

The more of these “Skeptics” that Boehner can keep in his camp, the fewer Democrats he needs to pass legislation. More important, the less important the “Coalition of the Unwilling” becomes in determining his fate.

GOP “Skeptics” who voted for 2013 Budget Deal and 2014 Farm Bill

Aderholt AL
Bilirakis FL
Bishop UT
Black TN
Carter TX
Cassidy LA
Chaffetz UT
Conaway TX
Culberson TX
Ellmers NC
Flores TX
Forbes VA
Graves MO
Griffith VA
Hartzler MO
Hudson NC
Huizenga MI
Hultgren IL
Johnson OH
LaMalfa CA
Latta OH
Luetkemeyer MO
McCaul TX
Noem SD
Nunnelee MS
Petri WI
Rice SC
Roby AL
Roe TN
Rooney FL
Ross FL
Ryan WI
Scott GA
Sessions TX
Smith TX
Southerland FL
Stewart UT
Thornberry TX
Wagner MO
Walberg MI
Wilson SC
Woodall GA
Yoho FL

This isn’t to say that this is the exact coalition that will be cobbled together for a debt ceiling or immigration vote. But, unlike earlier in 2013, these GOPers are now seemingly more open to vote with Democrats and GOP leadership.

House Republicans don’t need to solve all of the GOP’s demographic troubles in 2014. That is going to be the task of the GOP nominee in 2016. However, if they are going to stay viable and relevant, they need to prove that they aren’t paralyzed by intra-party divisions. At the end of the day, the more competent the GOP looks, the harder it will be for Democrats to cast them as part of the problem with Washington.