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A tale of House Republicans: The best and worst of times

GOP still holds 2024 edge on key issues — but it’s tenuous

(From left) Rep. Michael McCaul of Texas, Speaker Mike Johnson of Louisiana, Majority Whip Tom Emmer of Minnesota and Conference Chair Elise Stefanik of New York at a Republican news conference on Nov. 14. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
(From left) Rep. Michael McCaul of Texas, Speaker Mike Johnson of Louisiana, Majority Whip Tom Emmer of Minnesota and Conference Chair Elise Stefanik of New York at a Republican news conference on Nov. 14. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

This year brought the best of times and the worst of times for congressional Republicans, but at least they can take some solace that they didn’t have the year Joe Biden had. But I’ll leave that for another column.

The first half of the year kicked off with multiple rounds of voting to finally elect a speaker in January. Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., gained the speakership after an agonizing two weeks of negotiations and capped his limited tenure with successful efforts to bolster the economy. Topping the list was the passage of the debt ceiling agreement that took this increasingly divisive vote off the table until after the 2024 elections. A smart move especially after the chaos of the speaker’s vote.

In the bipartisan debt agreement, neither side got all they wanted, but this was undoubtedly a win for Republicans. The president and his fellow Democrats constantly repeated the mantra “we will not negotiate over the debt ceiling” for months — right up to the moment they decided to negotiate.

Republicans didn’t get all the spending cuts they wanted, but in the end, the White House blinked. The agreement did change the trajectory of government spending at a time when polling was showing that voters are making the connection between inflation and spending. They still do.

From the April “Winning the Issues” survey, conducted during the negotiations, it was clear voters tended to believe that increasing federal spending contributes to inflation (64 percent believe to 21 percent do not believe). They also believed that increasing the national debt contributes to inflation, by a 55 percent to 26 percent margin.

People also saw government spending as a bigger problem than federal revenues. From the March “Winning the Issues” survey, voters said government spending is the bigger problem (70 percent) than not enough revenue coming in from taxes (23 percent). This also was the case among independents (69 percent to 21 percent), who view spending as the problem by more than 3 to 1.

Over the spring (from April to June) when the debt deal was done, Republicans’ lead on the handling of the national debt improved by 7 percentage points, from plus-11 to plus-18. The White House can read polls. It was evident that Republicans were winning the messaging war, and the tide of public opinion had turned in their favor. That reality brought the White House to the negotiating table.

Despite public opinion, Democrats refused to budge on their demand that a new spending baseline go back to fiscal year 2022 instead of fiscal year 2019 spending levels, which many saw as the more appropriate and certainly fiscally sensible starting point. But with Republicans dealing with a tiny majority in the House and being in the Senate minority, the final deal reflected the art of the possible.

All sides breathed a sigh of relief with the exception of some unhappy members who continue to bypass the reality of a very slim majority in the House and a Democratic Senate while expecting the impossible. Democrats have a few of their own willing to buck their caucus majority on key votes as well. Add to that the White House’s nonstop barrage of anti-Republican rhetoric, and 2023 has been a particularly difficult legislative environment to navigate.

In spite of all those obstacles, the debt ceiling bill wasn’t the only successful Republican legislative achievement. They took action on the first day of the 118th Congress, with Republicans voting to strengthen the economy and boost energy production with H.R. 1, the “Lower Energy Costs Act.” It was Senate Democratic leadership that refused to take up the bill, along with a number of other House-passed Republican initiatives.

Republicans also voted to curb Biden’s excessive green regulatory initiatives by erecting roadblocks for efforts to end the sale of gas-powered cars and ban the use of gas stoves, to name two, along with reforming the permitting process for oil and gas.

Earlier in the year, Republicans also passed funding for Ukraine, the creation of the bipartisan China Select Committee to focus on economic security and competition and, in October, a resolution to support Israel that revealed Democratic divisions.

Given their slim majority, Republicans have managed to make some headway on restraining federal spending and overregulation but the second half of the year has seen a setback as yet another battle for the speakership erased many of the positive gains Republicans made earlier in the year.

Today, still-new Speaker Mike Johnson has a lot on his plate.

On the positive side, Republicans have made slow-but-sure progress on passage of the all-important annual appropriations bills, despite internal disputes over the speakership. For most of the public, this complicated process is too much inside baseball; but moving these bills forward, despite partisan and internal arguments, is the real job of Congress and its leaders on both sides.

According to the Congressional Research Service, the House has passed seven of the 12 yearly appropriations bills. The Senate has passed three. (None have passed both chambers, as of this writing.) That means both House and Senate Republicans have some heavy lifting ahead to meet the impending funding deadlines for four agencies on Jan. 19 and eight agencies, including the Defense Department, on Feb. 2.

In congressional “time,” that’s just around the corner.

Given their precarious margin in the House, and the time lost electing a speaker for the second time this session, there has been increased internal turmoil that has diminished member and staff morale, contributing to the retirements of some of the GOP’s most respected and effective leaders, a very high price to pay.

Republicans also saw some slight setbacks in issue-handling. Republicans had established sizable leads on economic issues in many polls. They still retain those leads, but they have slipped since September, according to the Winston Group’s “Winning the Issues” data.

On inflation, the Republican lead has gone from plus-15 percentage points in September to plus-12. The lead on the economy has gone from plus-14 to plus-10. We have not seen a change on the national debt, with Republicans still leading by plus-12, but they are under 50 percent.

Overall, this means Republicans still have a significant lead on the No. 1 issue: the economy. That has been enhanced by congressional Democrats having abandoned the White House-crafted term “Bidenomics.” So, going into 2024, Republicans still have the advantage — but it is a tenuous one.

David Winston is the president of The Winston Group and a longtime adviser to congressional Republicans. He previously served as the director of planning for Speaker Newt Gingrich. He advises Fortune 100 companies, foundations and nonprofit organizations on strategic planning and public policy issues, as well as serving as an election analyst for CBS News.

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