Whether the issue is immigration or federal budgets, Republicans keep learning a bitter lesson: Their sizable and near-historic congressional majority doesn't necessarily mean they can govern.
House Republican leaders confronted that truth again this week when fiscal conservatives unexpectedly blocked a leadership plan for the new federal budget. The struggle, which pits Republicans who want a more robust military against those bent on cutting spending, will have to be resolved later in the full House.
This week will be crucial for House Speaker John Boehner as he tries to get through the House two major pieces of legislation -- and prove he can govern his majority. Leaders will attempt to get a GOP-crafted budget through the House which increases defense spending by $20 billion and to pass a permanent fix to automatic cuts in payments to doctors who accept Medicare.
Even if the bills pass, lawmakers say GOP leaders will still confront deep ideological divisions that could wreak chaos later this year when it's time to raise the debt ceiling, fund the government and address other big issues that fire up conservative talk shows.
GOP leaders lack some of the disciplinary tools their predecessors had, colleagues say. And a significant number of House Republicans have little incentive to bend because they are elected by fiercely conservative voters who detest political compromise.
It's "a different time," said 10-term GOP Rep. Steve Chabot of Ohio, who doesn't always support House leaders but sympathizes with their struggles. "It's a tougher job than it was back then to pull together a working majority."
Chabot cited outside groups that scrutinize "every vote and everything we do" and are quick to declare "we're not conservative enough." With President Barack Obama seemingly more eager to veto GOP-passed bills than to compromise with Republicans, he said, "I don't think it's possible to do very large things until after the next election.
Chabot's colleagues cite other reasons why House Republican leaders — headed by Boehner of Ohio — are suffering embarrassing setbacks despite their 245-188 seat advantage over Democrats. (Two Republican-held seats are vacant.)
GOP leaders struggle to find even a few Democratic votes when needed because moderates from both parties have largely been driven out of Congress. And congressional leaders no longer can dole out pork-barrel projects, or earmarks. For decades, their predecessors used such favors to move balky lawmakers from "nay" to "aye."
"It's a contentious time, with a lot of polarization," said Republican Rep. Tom Cole of Oklahoma. "And you have fewer tools."
"There's no earmarks," Cole said, and current leaders rarely turn to bare-knuckle tactics such as kicking uncooperative colleagues off plum committees. "Boehner's style is a little bit more easy-going," he said. "He doesn't like to punish people."
"A lot of people think it's about intimidation," Cole said. Actually, he said, "it's persuasion most of the time, or it's appealing to your being on the team."
Many Democrats, and some Republicans, have little sympathy for Boehner.
GOP Rep. Tim Huelskamp of Kansas, a frequent Boehner critic, taunted the speaker for recently working with the House's top Democrat to seek a long-term solution to Medicare reimbursement rates for doctors. When reporters asked Huelskamp on Thursday about Boehner's fallback plan to tackle the latest budget quarrel in the Rules Committee, the Kansan asked sarcastically: "Did Nancy Pelosi approve that one? Oh, no, that's the doc fix."
Wednesday's midnight meltdown in the House Budget Committee embarrassed Boehner's team because two top lieutenants intervened — unsuccessfully, it turned out — against Budget Committee Chairman Tom Price's advice.
Price, from Georgia, had warned that tea party-aligned Republicans wouldn't swallow the leadership's bid to increase military spending without clearly offsetting the cost elsewhere. When Price was proven correct, Boehner's team agreed Thursday to hand the sticky issue to the Rules Committee, and eventually to the full House.
Rules Committee Chairman Pete Sessions of Texas pointed a friendly finger toward Huelskamp and told reporters: "We are working with members to listen to them about what they want and what they're going to support."
"The Rules Committee is going to make a great decision," Sessions said. "I just don't know what that is yet."
Several Republicans predicted Boehner's team will escape the budget jam next week. Even the balkiest GOP lawmakers want the House and Senate to agree on a budget plan so they can use a process called "reconciliation" as a possible vehicle for long-sought goals such as repealing the president's health care law.
"That's the No. 1 issue to me," Huelskamp said, even though Republicans acknowledge that Obama would veto it.
Boehner said his caucus will somehow bring together lawmakers who demand more military spending and those who insist on deeper spending cuts.
The cost-cutters prevailed in the Budget Committee this week. "But there is overwhelming support in our conference for providing additional resources to protect our national security," Boehner told reporters. He said he will "continue to work with all of our members on this issue."
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