When Republicans secured the keys to the U.S. Congress in the 2014 elections, Mitch McConnell, taking over as Senate majority leader, proclaimed: “It’s time to go in a new direction.”
Eleven months later, the direction the Republicans have gone looks anything but new.
Party infighting is at full boil, as evidenced by House Speaker John Boehner’s resignation under pressure from conservative firebrands, and party members cannot even agree amongst themselves on funding basic government operations.
Congress narrowly avoided a government shutdown this week, but with the Republican presidential primary campaign intensifying, and tough fiscal challenges ahead later this year, many fear another shutdown showdown in December.
If this script sounds familiar, it is because voters have seen it play out repeatedly over the past five years.
Some Republicans who started 2015 with big dreams now are wistful. House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael McCaul, referring to potential hang-ups over bills combating the militant Islamic State, said: “For God’s sake, if we can’t pass this kind of legislation, what can we pass in this Congress?”
In an op-ed article in The Wall Street Journal on the day after the victorious November elections last year, McConnell and Boehner wrote Americans were frustrated by “a government that seems incapable of performing even basic tasks.”
They listed as goals repealing Obamacare, authorizing construction of the Keystone XL pipeline, and tackling the tax code, over-regulation and the national debt.
In a strong start, the new Republican-controlled Congress approved the first full-scale budget blueprint in six years, a stabilization of Medicare physician payments and legislation giving Congress oversight of an Iran nuclear deal.
Republicans also won a fight to empower President Barack Obama with fast-track authority for a Pacific free-trade deal.
Among 52 bills enacted into law this year, a few others were substantial, such as a measure to combat human trafficking. But there were also eight House votes to restrict abortions, according to a House Democratic tally.
After a time-consuming dispute over the Confederate flag, momentum slowed. House members became discouraged by spending bills stalling in the Senate, where McConnell’s thinner majority means Democrats can still block legislation. McConnell held vote after vote on losing causes.
Today, Obamacare remains in place; the Keystone pipeline is in limbo; and tax reform is a distant prospect. No major regulatory rollback is underway as a result of congressional action. And the national debt continues to rise, with the Republican-controlled Congress having approved measures that would add to it.
It did not have to work out this way, former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, now a lobbyist, told Reuters during a Capitol visit. He advised conservatives to take smaller bites.
For example, instead of trying to completely defund Planned Parenthood, which has tied Congress in knots for weeks, Lott said he would have attacked the group “with a thousand slashes … take it apart piece by piece.”
(Additional reporting by Patricia Zengerle; Editing by Kevin Drawbaugh, Bernard Orr)