House Republicans last year were the least unified party bloc on legislation in more than four decades, CQ Roll Call’s annual Vote Studies analysis of congressional data found.
And that’s the case even without the multiple ballots it took to pick a speaker at two different points in the year, though those fights were certainly symptomatic.
The data show Republicans had only a 63.7 percent success rate on “party unity votes” or roll calls on bills, amendments and resolutions in which majorities of the two parties were on opposite sides of roll call votes. The metric ignores votes where both parties were overwhelmingly for or against a bill to identify cases where a member’s vote had the most potential to tip the scales one way or another.
The last time a majority party lost more unity votes was when Democrats presided in 1982, the second year of President Ronald Reagan’s first term, and prevailed just 63.5 percent of the time.
‘Stymied’ by hard-liners
There are parallels between 1982 and 2023, notes Princeton University politics professor Frances Lee. In both cases, the House was controlled by the party that did not control the Senate and the White House.
But, Lee explained, “A key difference between the 1982 Democrats and the 2023 Republicans is that the 2023 Republicans have been repeatedly stymied by a hard-line bloc, whereas the 1982 Democrats had to contend with a swing moderate/conservative contingent who wanted to work with the Reagan White House.”
Back then, Democrats were divided so much, often by geography, that Congressional Quarterly separately tracked the voting records of the conservative coalition in the House. That dates to when Southern Democrats often aligned with Republicans on social policy issues and against civil rights protections.
In this Congress, spending fights have been an ongoing flashpoint within the GOP majority, and divisions reached a head with the historic Oct. 3 ouster of California’s Kevin McCarthy from the speaker’s chair after a faction moved to punish him for calling a vote on a short-term spending extension to prevent a government shutdown.
In 2023, many of the party unity votes that drove down the GOP’s success rate came on floor amendments to appropriations bills. Those votes included a slew of salary reduction amendments aimed at individual executive branch employees, as well as broader efforts to reduce funding for federal programs.
Of the 515 House party unity votes, 54 of them (more than 10 percent) were on measures to reduce salaries for officials ranging from the White House press secretary to the acting administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
Those votes tended to follow a pattern, with all Democrats present voting “no” and between 45 and 75 Republicans crossing over to join the opposition.
“The American people should not be forced to pay the salary of an individual who dispenses bold-faced lies to the American people,” Rep. Claudia Tenney, R-N.Y., said during floor debate in November after seeking to reduce the salary of White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre to $1.
Like others, that amendment was not adopted, with the final tally being 165-257.
Seven of the votes came on amendments to reduce appropriations for regional commissions funded through the Energy and Water Development spending bill.
The commissions, like the Denali Commission in Alaska and the Appalachian Regional Commission, are favorite agencies of some lawmakers who see them as providing economic development funding and services to their constituents.
Rep. Scott Perry, R-Pa., offered separate amendments to reduce funding for several of the commissions and faced similar defeats in each case, running up the score in terms of party unity votes. All told, the House took seven roll call votes on amendments to reduce commission funding that all proved unsuccessful for the GOP position.
The data show, therefore, that one concession McCarthy made to the most conservative faction in the caucus helped drive down the unity rate.
Leaders usually do not call for votes they know will not pass, but McCarthy agreed to a much more robust amendment process on spending bills than Democrats and even some of his GOP predecessors allowed when they had the majority. The change led to conservative members being able to force amendment votes that had no chance of success.
Speakers of the recent past, in contrast, would routinely consider appropriations measures under more restrictive rules and closed processes.
Arguably, the most significant losses for Republicans, however, came on rules themselves. Rules votes, which set the framework for how long debate can take and what amendments are allowed, effectively give the majority its power to set the agenda. They traditionally get near-unanimous support from the ruling party, even if members plan to vote later against the underlying legislation. Until July 2023, no rule had been defeated on the House floor since November of 2002.
Two of the year’s most significant successful House votes completely divided the majority party, with Republican unity rates slightly above 50 percent against the December measure that expelled Rep. George Santos, R-N.Y., and a September vote on Ukraine security assistance.
Republicans started the year with a 222-213 majority, meaning leaders could afford to lose only four GOP votes and still prevail if every Democrat voted “no.” That was the same split then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi had in 2022, however, when Democrats won 91.4 percent of party unity votes that year, their lowest majority win rate since 2010.
“House Republicans have contended with similar difficulties under other recent leaders dating back at least to Boehner,” Lee said in an email, referring to GOP Speaker John Boehner who held the gavel from 2011 through 2015. “Their problems were more severe in 2023 given the party’s narrow margin of control and hard-liners’ newfound willingness to withhold support for the party’s procedural control of the House.”
Senate trend continues
Senate unity rates for 2023 were more in line with recent trends. Roughly 81 percent of the roll call votes cast in 2023 were unity votes, with the majority Democrats prevailing 91.5 percent of the time. Most of the unity votes were on nominations or on procedural votes to set them up, meaning essentially duplicate votes boosted the average. All told, 208 of the 284 Senate unity votes in 2023 were on nominations.
Sens. Susan Collins of Maine, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina were the only three Republicans to vote the opposite way from most their GOP colleagues more than 100 times, with Collins leading the way at 186.
All three are senior appropriators, but the bulk of the votes in question were nominations. For instance, of the 124 times that Graham broke, 119 (96 percent) were on nominations.
The results have been basically the same since Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer of New York started setting the agenda in 2021, operating with the narrowest of margins.
Twelve of the 24 times that Senate Republicans prevailed on party unity votes came on votes related to overturning regulations adopted by the executive branch or the District of Columbia municipal government. These measures were able to get up-or-down votes because they were not subject to the 60-vote threshold normally needed to end debate on legislation. But they were also subject to President Joe Biden’s veto, which he used nine times and was not overriden.