Skip to content

Perils of Majority Await Election-Day Victors

No matter who controls the House after Nov. 2, it seems certain that the chamber will be more partisan and neither side will be able to get much done.

For House Republicans, the prospects are relatively bright. They will likely expand their caucus ranks in the 112th Congress, and many pundits think they are in a position to win the majority.

And assuming Democrats retain control of the Senate — a prospect made more likely by the defeat of Rep. Mike Castle in Delaware’s Republican Senate primary last week — House Minority Leader John Boehner (Ohio) will become the Republicans’ point man for challenging President Barack Obama.

Boehner has already begun testing his role as Obama’s chief antagonist, delivering major policy speeches and challenging the president’s priorities. Most observers say Boehner would win the Speaker’s gavel without any challenge, and he’s already preparing for the job, even opening a political action committee under that label and talking openly about the days of GOP control.

But a House GOP victory would not come without challenges.

The first problem a Republican majority would face is making good on its campaign promises. Party activists have been demanding that Congress repeal Obama’s signature health care overhaul and make major cuts to federal programs. Both would be almost impossible to achieve with Democrats still in charge in the Senate and White House.

Boehner would also be assuming control of a Conference that will likely tack to the right given the expected influx of tea party candidates. Boehner tried to shore up his conservative bona fides when he became Minority Leader in 2007, but he may need to do even more to win the loyalties of a sizable crop of freshmen.

But even though the Conference will lean more to the right, one aide said it was unlikely that it would take up the social issue battles of the last Republican majority. Rather, this aide said, Boehner is likely to focus his Members on the issues that unite them: taxes and spending.

Democrats say that if the GOP shifts too far to the right, its majority will be short-lived.

“It’s certainly a significant danger for them, of overreaching and going too far to the right,” one Democratic aide said, adding that an overreach could prompt voter backlash in 2012.

Many incoming Republicans are likely to be aligned with the tea party movement, making their support for leadership-brokered compromises harder to predict. If those new Members buck the leadership, Boehner will have a tougher time keeping his Conference united against Obama.

“You could expect to see those Members come here and want to set off on their own path and not help the Republican leadership,” one Democratic aide said.

Republicans would have more leadership slots to fill in the majority, creating opportunities for ambitious Members such as Reps. Tom Price (Ga.), Greg Walden (Ore.), Peter Roskam (Ill.) and Jeb Hensarling (Texas) to fill vacant positions such as Assistant to the Speaker, Policy Committee chairman and Chief Deputy Whip. But there could also be bitter fights for prime committee chairmanships since at least two panel chairmen will reach their term limits at the end of the 111th Congress.

Such battles are not unprecedented. In 2008, two years after Democrats retook control of the House, Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) took on and successfully wrested the gavel from long-time Energy and Commerce Chairman John Dingell (D-Mich.).

Across the aisle, a move to the minority would eliminate one slot in Democratic leadership, fueling questions about which member of Pelosi’s leadership team might step aside or be edged out. Pelosi would have to decide whether she would want to return to the far less powerful position of Minority Leader after a four-year stint as Speaker or be relegated to a backbencher. If she were to step aside, Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (Md.) would be the top contender to lead the Democrats. But if Pelosi sticks around in the minority, Caucus Chairman John Larson (Conn.) or Vice Chairman Xavier Becerra (Calif.) could fall from the leadership ranks.

For House Democrats, the goal at this point is staving off a GOP rout.

And if Republicans fail to achieve the majority by even a single seat, the current GOP leadership team may face recriminations.

One GOP aide said Republicans now have a real sense they could win back the House, meaning Boehner could be in trouble if they don’t.

“Expectations are extremely high,” the aide said. “I think part of the challenge is to manage the expectations game.”

“There will be a lot of angst” if Democrats hold the majority, the aide added.

A second GOP aide said that if expectations are too high, Boehner could be held liable, creating an opening for Minority Whip Eric Cantor (Va.) to challenge him for the top GOP job.

“If there is someone on the chopping block, it could be [Boehner], but I don’t quite see it,” the second aide said.

Pelosi, Hoyer and Clyburn are expected keep their posts if Democrats retain the majority, but a smaller Caucus could complicate their efforts to corral liberals and moderates, particularly since Democratic moderates from swing districts are the ones most likely to lose their re-election bids.

“The challenge with a small majority means there are fewer moderates who are willing to work on compromises with the Democratic Party and Democratic leaders,” a senior Democratic aide said.

With a 39-seat edge, Democratic leaders have the latitude to let their most conservative Members take a stand against aspects of the Democratic agenda. But if there are significant moderate Democratic losses Nov. 2, leaders would have fewer Members to whip, the aide said.

“When you have a large majority, it’s easier to pass things,” the senior aide said. “You have 20, you’re going back to the same 20 all the time” to ask them to vote with leadership.

Some aides say Republicans — assuming they remain in the minority — may be more inclined to negotiate in 2011 to prove they can govern in the runup to the 2012 elections.

“The more they grow their ranks, the more responsibility they have for working together on an agenda,” one Democratic leadership aide said of Republicans. If moderate GOP candidates in swing districts constitute much of those gains, “that would create a better environment for negotiation and compromise,” the aide said.

But a former aide to Minority Leader Dick Gephardt (D-Mo.) said that if Democrats keep a narrow majority, Republicans will have little appetite to assist Democrats in passing elements of their agenda, particularly if GOP leaders sense they are still in striking distance of the majority in 2012.

“You would have to have a minority willing to do something out of the gate in a bipartisan way,” the former aide said.