Conservatives gloat as Congress starts off with little to show

The new Congress has accomplished almost nothing so far — and conservatives are quite pleased about it.

For Republicans who want to slow President Joe Biden’s agenda and court confrontation with Democrats, the beginning of the year has played out beautifully. The House and Senate have not passed any new laws, the speaker is jostling with Biden over the debt ceiling and the new Congress’ most significant collaboration was agreeing to meet for the State of the Union.

The Democratic Senate has held just eight roll-call votes on nominees and approved only one piece of new legislation alongside a host of non-binding resolutions. The House GOP, meanwhile, has rammed through dozens of bills — few, if any, of which have a chance of coming to the Senate floor.

It’s a preview of the long slog that Washington expects during divided government. But the limping pace is also a textbook example of the strategy some Republicans hope to execute for the next two years, running out the clock on Biden’s presidency and betting on beating him in 2024.

Summing up the view of many conservatives, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) said: “Every day Senate Democrats are not destroying America is a good day.”’

House conservatives extracted myriad concessions from Speaker Kevin McCarthy, winning historic sway over key levers of Congress — including the panel that sets the chamber’s floor votes. Even in the Senate, the GOP’s right flank is celebrating the sleepy six weeks since being sworn in on Jan. 3 and mounting its first-ever challenge to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.

Congress will assuredly have to clear legislation this year to raise the debt ceiling and fund the government. Yet there are few signs of anything else making its way to Biden's desk. The Senate spent its first three weeks in recess, and then a long GOP internal fight over committee assignments delayed Senate organization for another two weeks.

“I actually appreciate this go-slow approach,” said Sen. Cynthia Lummis (R-Wyo.), who said the country needs a “breather” after the past two years. “It's time to slow down.”

Over in the House, McCarthy's bruising fight for the speakership gave way to a "honeymoon" period, as Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) cheekily put it. While the party then moved quickly to pass a series of bills — including two on abortion and one that aimed to rescind new IRS funding — those proposals will serve little purpose beyond political messaging, since they won’t survive the Democrat-controlled Senate or the president's veto.

It's not all sunshine for Republican leaders, who had to pull other pieces of legislation favored by conservatives. That included two police bills, one that aimed to “hold prosecutors accountable” and another that expressed support for law enforcement.

Yet their swift passage of legislation that has little chance of becoming law is allowing the narrow House majority to divide Democrats on issues like autonomy from Congress for the D.C. government, as well as to ding Senate Democrats — who one month ago watched McCarthy fight for his political life and are just now ramping up their pace.

“We're crashing through. We've passed a lot of our priorities. We split the Democrats on many of these votes,” said Rep. Richard Hudson (R-N.C.), head of the House GOP campaign arm. “What matters is: Are we going to be able to get our spending bills done? And I'm hopeful that we'll see some activity over there on their side.”

The tables could always quickly turn, particularly when the debt-ceiling negotiations ramp up this summer, given the possibility that centrist Republicans could team with Democrats to ice out the right.

For now, though, both Senate and House conservatives are emboldened. That looks different depending on the chamber you look at: 10 Republican senators opposed McConnell’s election as GOP leader, and challenger Rick Scott (R-Fla.) is among those still battling with the Kentuckian, accusing him of using panel assignments as retribution (“Of course, he tossed me off the committee, because I ran against him,” Scott said of the Commerce Committee).

In the House, McCarthy won over much of his opposition after a bruising speaker fight, leading to praise from unusual corners like Rep. Ralph Norman (R-S.C.), who said that “Kevin has kept his promises” to the right.

The House’s comparatively rapid pace, for now, is no surprise given the procedural constraints in the Senate. But at some point, roughly 18 months from now, upper-chamber Democrats will run out of floor time before the election and perhaps regret that they didn't jump in more quickly.

That’s in part due to Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer’s decision to start the year on a three-week recess. Following that break, the chamber's Democrats contend that Republicans intentionally slowed committee organization during an internal fight over where senators like Rick Scott and a new crop of GOP freshmen would end up.

Schumer says at least having a 51-49 majority will allow them to evade some GOP roadblocks.

“Republicans want to slow-walk because they can’t stand that the Democrats are in the majority,” said Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), the Senate Banking Committee chair. “It's always a slow start. But this has been worse.”

McCarthy seemed to enjoy watching Democrats across the building, remarking last month: “Is the Senate even in this week? What did they do this week? Oh, yeah, they haven't been in.”

The last Senate started at a similarly glacial pace, with McConnell delaying an organizing resolution and the chamber forced to immediately take up an impeachment trial for former President Donald Trump after Democrats took slim control of the chamber. But Schumer pivoted quickly to a Covid aid package, kicking off a historical period of legislating between an evenly divided Senate and a small House Democratic majority.

In a split government, any legislative goals will have to be more circumspect. Schumer is looking to bring a modest tax treaty with Chile to the Senate floor soon, along with repeal of the authorization for use of military force that cleared the way for the George W. Bush-era invasion of Iraq.

And while House Republicans joked that gridlock is good when there is a Democratic president in office, some were also optimistic about bipartisan goals, even with the 2024 presidential election looming.

“You can get big things done when you can share the blame,” said Hudson, pointing to the debt ceiling.

In the immediate term, Democrats are shifting their focus to what can be done unilaterally.

Senate Democrats just confirmed their first judge of this Congress, and Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), who chairs the chamber's Judiciary Committee, said the party is “ready to roll” on dozens more.

“We want to get moving,” said Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), the No. 3 Democrat.

But even then, a single Republican can slow down Circuit Court nominees for up to 30 hours — a gambit that adds up over time. It’s just one more example of why the right isn’t exactly upset about the halting start.

“From their perspective, yes,” it’s a problem, said Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst, the No. 4 GOP leader and a more conservative member of party leadership. “From our perspective, it’s been great.”

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Trump reasserts dominance over GOP

Mitt Romney and Josh Hawley, polar opposites in today’s GOP, agree on one thing: Donald Trump’s status as Republican kingmaker.

After the former president’s endorsement of a former critic rocketed J.D. Vance to the GOP Senate nomination in Ohio, the two senators can’t help but see things the same way. Hawley (R-Mo.), who led Trump-backed election challenges in the Senate last year, observed that “he’s the leader of the party, that’s clear … If he decides to run, he will be the nominee.”

And while Romney twice voted to convict Trump in impeachment trials, speaking out against him more than any other sitting GOP senator, the Utah Republican also concluded that anyone who argues the former president is fading away is not tethered to reality.

“I don’t delude myself into thinking I have a big swath of the Republican Party,” Romney said in a Wednesday interview. “It’s hard to imagine anything that would derail his support. So if he wants to become the nominee in ‘24, I think he’s very likely to achieve that.”

Though Tuesday was just one night in a crowded spring primary calendar, Trump’s romp in Ohio signals that — for all the talk of his waning influence after losing in 2020 and getting impeached for inciting an insurrection — the GOP is still in his thrall. He’s unlikely to topple several sitting governors he’s gone after. But when it comes to federal primaries, Trump far overshadows every other GOP figure, from the establishment to party gadflies, according to interviews with nearly a dozen GOP lawmakers.

Trump-endorsed House candidates Max Miller and Madison Gesiotto Gilbert cruised through their respective Ohio primaries on Tuesday night. In the northwest corner of the state, J.R. Majewski, a Trump fanatic known for using paint to transform his lawn into shrines to the former president, notched an upset of two better-funded rivals.

That was just one week after Trump praised Majewski and his landscaping at an Ohio rally for Vance.

“There's never been an endorsement in American history that has the political punch that President Trump's endorsement has,” said Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio).

At the moment, Vance’s flailing-to-sailing campaign is a case study in Trump's ability to change the game for a candidate down the stretch. Vance was dead in the water two months ago, but Trump’s mid-April endorsement plus big spending by a Peter Thiel-backed super PAC vaulted him over his primary rivals Josh Mandel, Mike Gibbons, Matt Dolan and Jane Timken.

Six years ago, retiring Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) significantly outpaced Trump in 2016 as he romped to reelection in Ohio, even after rescinding his endorsement of the then-presidential nominee. Things looked much different this time around: Portman’s preferred candidate Timken ended up in fifth place, torched by a brief defense of Rep. Anthony Gonzalez’s (R-Ohio) impeachment vote that lost her Trump’s potential backing.

“I told you the endorsement was going to matter. And it did,” Portman said of Trump backing Vance. “He has a very high approval rating among Republican primary voters.”

It also didn’t hurt that in Ohio “you had two other frontrunner candidates who almost beat each other up on stage,” quipped Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), referring to a televised clash between Gibbons and Mandel during a primary debate.

Ohio won't end debate over Trump’s GOP sway after four chaotic years in the White House; in fact, his pull will be tested on a weekly basis this spring. And if he can replicate his performance in Ohio in most races, there will be little doubt that Trump’s blessing is determinative in open seats.

“When Trump endorsed, Vance was in fourth place. And he rocketed to the front on the shoulders of Trump’s endorsement,” said Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), who campaigned for Mandel in Ohio. “It has been obvious for a long time that he has enormous influence in the party, that Republicans strongly support President Trump, and they care about his leadership.”

Still, Cruz said he wouldn’t be dissuaded from campaigning for Republican hopeful David McCormick in Pennsylvania’s Senate race just because Trump’s endorsement cost Mandel the primary.

As to whether Trump is the frontrunner for the 2024 nomination, Cruz said of his former 2016 rival: “I think Trump always feels like the frontrunner in every circumstance.”

After 18 months of build-up, the primaries are now coming fast, starting next week with a West Virginia battle between Republican Reps. David McKinley and Trump-backed Rep. Alex Mooney, as well as a Nebraska gubernatorial race in which Trump endorsed Charles Herbster, who — like the former president — has faced accusations of sexual assault.

After that comes open Senate GOP primaries in Pennsylvania, where Trump endorsed TV personality Mehmet Oz over business executive McCormick, and North Carolina, where he picked Rep. Ted Budd over former Gov. Pat McCrory and former Rep. Mark Walker. Trump’s also struggling to dislodge Idaho Gov. Brad Little.

Then comes Georgia, where Gov. Brian Kemp has a steady lead over Trump-backed former Sen. David Perdue and Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger squares off against Trump ally Rep. Jody Hice. Trump yanked his Senate endorsement of Rep. Mo Brooks in Alabama after Brooks’ numbers sank down the stretch, raising eyebrows among Senate Republicans. He’s expected to endorse one of Brooks’ rivals.

That's all within the next month.

Trump will struggle to win all of those races. And his allies are hoping Trump would be a gracious loser — a high bar for a man who still refuses to admit he lost to Biden.

“If one of his preferred candidates loses down the road, I hope he’ll do the same thing everybody else should do, which is get behind the person that won,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who called Trump’s endorsement “outcome-determinative” for Vance but also laughed that “70 percent of the people voted for somebody else” in Ohio.

In Georgia’s Senate race, Trump essentially ended the Republican primary before it even started by anointing Herschel Walker to challenge Democratic incumbent Sen. Raphael Warnock. Republicans have barely lifted a finger to try and stop the scandal-plagued Walker given his popularity among GOP voters, reasoning that if they are going to win the seat they have to do it with Trump’s candidate. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell endorsed Walker last year.

So far, Senate Republicans have only sought to protect Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) from Trump’s wrath after he endorsed primary challenger Kelly Tshibaka in Alaska. He’s stopped trying to topple Senate Minority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.), perplexing the No. 2 GOP leader.

Asked why Trump has gone quiet in his reelection race, Thune responded: “Good question. I don’t have any answer to that.”

Sen. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.) offered one explanation: that Thune is so popular in the state that he’d be difficult to beat under any circumstance. And in high-profile Senate races, Trump’s been relatively strategic. He endorsed Vance and Oz late to help push them over the top and has stayed away from scandal-plagued former Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens’ Senate bid.

Trump's also aligned with the deep-pocketed Club for Growth to help vault Budd into the lead in North Carolina, two factors that when combined “have a pretty big impact,” said National Republican Senatorial Committee Chair Rick Scott (R-Fla.). That pro-Budd alliance comes after Trump and the Club supported different candidates in Ohio.

But even where Trump hasn’t endorsed, the GOP primaries are mostly about Trump anyway.

“He’s ramping up his activity. He’s doing more rallies, he’s getting more involved in these races,” Hawley said. “He doesn’t have to be involved in these races. Because everyone’s claiming his mantle anyway.”

Ally Mutnick contributed to this report.

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