WASHINGTON — Conservatives emboldened by House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s astonishing loss to a tea party-backed upstart are pledging to capitalize on their newfound political strength.
That is setting up election-year struggles over Congress’ most basic legislative responsibilities and erasing already slim hopes for ambitious bills on immigration and voting rights.
Cantor’s presence in the leadership ranks had raised expectations of some congressional action this year on a GOP alternative to President Barack Obama’s health care law, a business-friendly reauthorization of the Export-Import bank, a bipartisan voting rights measure and even some version of an immigration overhaul.
The Virginia Republican’s primary defeat last Tuesday at the hands of immigration foe Dave Brat and his decision to step down as majority leader July 31 dashed any dimming prospects for far-reaching legislation. With control of Congress at stake in November, conservatives read the election results as a repudiation of any measure that might divide Republican ranks.
Establishment Republicans who have engaged in a struggle with tea party factions the past five years dismissed the crowing over Cantor’s loss, arguing that he was the conservative’s conservative in the leadership. Several Republicans insisted the internal party fights will continue.
If the GOP seizes control of the House and Senate in November, conservatives have high expectations for bold action and challenges to the lame-duck president in the year ahead of the 2016 White House race.
For now, with just 36 legislative days left in the House, lawmakers plan to do the bare minimum.
“The agenda’s pretty well set — we’ve got to get a budget done before the 1st of October, appropriations bills, maybe some other VA legislation done, that’s about all,” said Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tenn.
With a Republican House that deeply distrusts Obama and a Democratic Senate, Congress has produced very little in a year and a half. Just 121 bills have become law. The previous two years produced a remarkably low 283 laws.
“I don’t think the problem here is recalcitrant Republicans, I think it’s actually recalcitrant Democrats and a president who’s not very good at legislative dealmaking,” said Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla.
In the chaotic aftermath of Cantor’s loss, conservatives and more established Republicans scrambled for the sudden openings in the leadership ranks.
California Rep. Kevin McCarthy, now No. 3 in the GOP leadership as whip, is all but assured of moving up in the ranks to replace Cantor though he faces a long-shot challenge from Idaho Rep. Raul Labrador, a late entry on Friday.
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, is not being challenged for now.
The election is Thursday.
Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, said voters sent a message in the Cantor race: GOP leaders had better change course or risk a backlash.
“This is an opportunity to make progress and (voters) are going to be very, very cynical” if nothing changes, said King, pointing to McCarthy’s quick ascent as a sign leadership wasn’t getting the message.
“They will say the ruling class in Washington, D.C., closed ranks and whatever we do doesn’t matter and they didn’t hear us again,” he said.
Among the casualties of Cantor’s loss could be conservative Republicans’ hopes of presenting a GOP alternative to the health care law. Cantor had promised a vote this year, but more recently committee leaders have been unable to agree on a unified policy or process.
Roe, a conservative physician who’s pushed the party’s leadership to move on a health care alternative, said Cantor’s loss “certainly didn’t improve the chances.”
He said the majority leader’s defeat underscores the need for party leaders to pay more attention to the frustrations of Republican base voters on a range of issues, particularly holding Obama accountable.
“I think the frustration I hear out in my district is that leadership is not listening enough and I think that perception is correct,” Roe said in an interview Friday.
The outcome of November elections will help determine whether Republicans do more to check Obama and steps he is taking by executive action.
“The American people spoke as loudly as they have in my lifetime in 2010 and I think you could hear that shoutout again in November,” said Roe.
Daniel Horowitz, policy director of the Madison Project, which promotes conservative candidates, said Cantor’s loss shows the “establishment is now in chaos and they realize that on some level they have to change course.”
Conservatives will be scrutinizing every bill that comes up and will challenge leaders over unnecessary spending, budgetary gimmicks and other issues, Horowitz said.
“The conservative members feel like they have tail winds at their backs now, they feel like the people have their backs and they can now come out of the shadows and really confront leadership,” said Horowitz.
Conservatives are getting rolled in the coming week’s leadership election, where swift moves by GOP leaders cemented the ascension of McCarthy, an establishment-aligned Republican. That could all change after November, when new leadership elections will be held, Horowitz said.
“It will give us six months now to blow this up heading into November and call for a full wipeout of the slate and that will obviously start with Boehner,” Horowitz said.
Conservative radio host Laura Ingraham, who was key in promoting Brat’s candidacy against Cantor, said comments from the House’s GOP leaders in the aftermath suggests they haven’t learned the message of voter discontent from Cantor’s loss.
“It’s the classic bubble boy phenomenon. You’ve got a lot of politicians in Washington who even if they’re from states that are traditionally red states, they do get caught up in this Washington bubble. … Overwhelming numbers of middle-class people feel like America is slipping away and the leadership doesn’t seem to get that,” Ingraham said.