Nearly two years ago, House Speaker John Boehner faced an insurrection from the right flank of his party that forced a government shutdown and nearly cost him his job. This year, the governing environment has measurably detoxified, making passage of perpetually vexing items such as a long-term fix to Medicare physician reimbursement rates possible. Boehner's road ahead today looks less steep than it once did.
A big reason why: so far in 2015, the House GOP's "Coalition of the Willing" has expanded, while the "Coalition of the Unwilling" has shrunk. But as Congress hurtles towards the August recess, showdowns over the Export-Import bank and the Highway Trust Fund will test anew just how much the party has shifted.
We first came up with these classifications in 2013, a time when the House GOP leadership struggled mightily to pass must-pass pieces of bipartisan legislation such as Hurricane Sandy Relief, the Violence Against Women Act, and the Farm Bill. The anti-spending rebels in the House GOP conference made their party a "majority in name only," repeatedly forcing Boehner to break the so-called Hastert Rule and rely on Democratic votes.
It all came to a head in the summer and fall of 2013, when GOP Rep. Mark Meadows circulated a letter signed by 80 House Republicans urging the de-funding of the Affordable Care Act as a condition of funding the government. The leadership was forced to choose between a shutdown and a possible mutiny. It took two weeks for the less ideological forces within the GOP to rally around Boehner and end the shutdown (of course, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, who opposed the shutdown tactic, ultimately lost his 2014 primary).
Back then, we classified House Republicans by how many times they voted in favor or against five bipartisan bills backed by leadership, including the deal to end the shutdown. The result was shaped like a bell curve: there were 26 "Dependables" who voted yes all five times, 35 "Allies" who voted yes four times, 42 "Helpers" who voted yes three times, 63 "Skeptics" who voted no three times, 36 "Agitators" who voted no four times, and 27 "Rebels" who voted no all five times.
Grouped more broadly, there were 61 members of the "Coalition of the Willing" who generally favored bipartisan bills, 105 "Deciders" in the middle, and 63 members of the "Coalition of the Unwilling" - the leadership's greatest antagonists. In other words, given the GOP's 17-seat majority, if even a third of the 63 unwilling voted against a bill, it would force GOP leaders to either placate the agitators or go hunting for Democratic votes.
Today's House GOP looks a bit different. We have updated this cheat sheet to plot out House Republicans' voting behavior on five critical votes this year:
- The Election of the Speaker (Boehner won, 1/6/15)
- Department of Homeland Security Appropriations (passed 3/3/15)
- Federal Support for Passenger Railroads (passed 3/4/15)
- Doc Fix" and Chip Reauthorization (passed 3/26/15)
- Trade Act, combination of TPA/TPP (failed 6/12/15)
Credit: Ally Flinn. Please click on the graphic to download a PDF version (Note: although Trade Promotion Authority eventually passed the House, we used the first failed vote to highlight the ideological differences within the conference).
With an expanded majority and fewer pure rebels to contend with, Republican leaders are breathing a bit easier, but they are not yet out of the woods. Here are a few observations - and caveats - that shed light on this shift:
1. As we look at the heavy concentration of Republicans on the “willing” side of the ledger, it’s important to remember that there have not been many ‘tough’ votes that tested the GOP leadership this year. Perhaps the most significant was the “Doc Fix” vote in late March, which directly contradicted GOP orthodoxy on deficit spending.
However, there are likely to be plenty of tough votes in the coming months. From highway funding to the Export-Import bank to lifting sequester cuts to the potential for another fiscal cliff/debt ceiling showdown, there are plenty of opportunities for the “Coalition of the Willing” to migrate over to “Skeptics” or even “Agitators.”
2. Republicans' pickup of 13 seats in 2014 wasn't just icing on the majority's cake - it has provided meaningful leverage to the GOP leadership. Of the 16 House GOP freshmen who took over Democratic seats, 13 of them voted with leadership more often than not. Only three - Reps. Rick Allen (GA-12), Alex Mooney (WV-03), and Rod Blum (IA-01) did not.
A district's competitiveness is the best indicator of a member's willingness to vote for bipartisan legislation. In fact, in our newest analysis, the average "Dependable" district had a Partisan Voter Index score of R+5, while the average "Rebel" district had a score of R+16. So, Republicans' pickup of competitive seats means the GOP leadership can afford to lose more votes from the "Coalition of the Unwilling" and still pass bills without Democratic votes.
3. One of the more valuable aspects of this chart is the ability to predict which Republicans are likely to abandon the leadership even before a vote is taken. For example, before the recent vote on the short term patch for the highway funding bill, the Club for Growth sent an alert urging Members to vote “No,” arguing that it “includes no pro-growth reforms and is financed with budget gimmicks - not real spending cuts that reduce the size of government.”
Ultimately, 65 Republicans voted against the legislation. And, looking at those 65, it's easy to see they come almost exclusively from the right, or “Unwilling,” side of the ledger: 100 percent of the "Rebels" and 75 percent of the “Agitators” voted against the leadership here, while just 5 percent of the Allies and none of Dependables voted “No.”
Cook Political Report intern David Steinbach contributed to this report.
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