Wall Street Journal
By Kristina Peterson
September 14, 2016
Republicans are unlikely to lose their House majority in November’s election, but party leaders could be left with a majority that is harder to control.
House Speaker Paul Ryan (R., Wis.), already contending with a band of dozens of strong-willed conservatives, could see that bloc’s share of the House GOP grow next year.
The reason is that the Republicans in most peril from down-ballot whiplash against their presidential nominee, Donald Trump, are the dwindling handful of more centrist GOP lawmakers left in swing districts. If a Democratic wave sweeps through House elections in November — or even a more modest current — conservative lawmakers ensconced in safely Republican districts are most likely to survive, positioning them to make up a larger chunk of a smaller House GOP.
Already often fractured over spending bills and other must-pass legislation, Republicans said their internal divisions could intensify if their majority shrinks and they lose many of their most centrist colleagues.
“If we lose a bunch of seats then it gets really, really hard,” said Rep. Steve Stivers (R., Ohio). If Republicans only lose a net of 10 seats to 15 seats, he said, “it may be more manageable.”
While it’s unclear how many seats Republicans might lose in the House, the GOP majority is expected to narrow. With 247 seats under GOP control, House Republicans currently have their largest majority since 1928. [Note: they now occupy 246 seats since Ed Whitfield resigned earlier this month.] That means that Republicans are currently defending many of the most competitive districts that tend to bounce between the two parties.
GOP Reps. Bob Dold of Illinois, Carlos Curbelo of Florida and Mike Coffman of Colorado are among the most vulnerable Republicans this year who could lose their seats if Republicans disenchanted with Mr. Trump stay home in November. They are also among the few GOP lawmakers willing to cross the aisle on issues including gun control and immigration.
“That’s one of the unfortunate things: the most vulnerable members are often the ones that are most constructive,” said Rep. John Delaney (D., Md.).
Democratic leaders may stand to benefit if Mr. Ryan loses some of the Republicans that GOP leaders count on to vote for bills that sometimes anger the party faithful. Republican leaders already often lose 40 or more GOP votes on contentious legislation including must-pass spending bills, giving leverage to Democrats, whose votes are needed for the bills to pass. Conservatives say they are sticking to their principles and that a GOP-controlled Congress should make fewer concessions to Democrats.
The bloc of conservatives is already “big enough now that it has consequences that Paul [Ryan] has to consider with everything that we do,” said Rep. Tom Rooney (R., Fla.). If, in November, “we lose seats, then they’re going to have even more juice to dictate things that they want.”
On Tuesday, members of the Freedom Caucus took a procedural step on the House floor to force a vote on whether to impeach Internal Revenue Service Commissioner John Koskinen, two days before Mr. Ryan’s scheduled discussion of the issue among House Republicans. Conservatives are also opposed to a short-term spending bill that would keep the government running until Dec. 9, after its current funding expires on Sept. 30. They want to avoid having Congress pass a single, sweeping spending bill in December.
Conservatives know they have some leverage ahead of the first vote of the next Congress in electing the House speaker. If Mr. Ryan angers them in the lame-duck session between the election and January, some conservatives warned they may not initially support him as speaker. On that vote, Mr. Ryan can expect no help from Democrats and may already be receiving fewer Republican votes if the House GOP majority winnows.
Rep. Thomas Massie (R., Ky.) said Mr. Ryan couldn’t “expect to be speaker again” if he tries to hold lame-duck votes on a Pacific trade deal and a proposal to resolve the long-running fight over taxing internet sales across state lines. “The speaker’s going to be accountable for the things that happen in December,” he said.
It’s not clear who else in the House GOP conference could receive the votes needed to be speaker, which requires the support of a majority of all 435 lawmakers who vote for a specific person.
“The focus for Speaker Ryan over the next 56 days is defending and strengthening our House majority,” Kevin Seifert, executive director of Mr. Ryan’s political office, said in a statement Tuesday. “We are in a good position to do precisely that and the House will continue to be an engine for solutions that apply our conservative principles to the problems of the day.”
Republicans noted that the election will not be a one-way exodus of centrist Republicans. Some conservatives are leaving at the end of this year and are likely to be replaced by Republicans expected to cooperate with GOP leaders.
Retiring Rep. Cynthia Lummis (R., Wyo.) will likely be succeeded by Liz Cheney, the daughter of former Vice President Dick Cheney. In Florida, Francis Rooney, former U.S. ambassador to the Vatican, won the GOP primary to replace retiring Rep. Curt Clawson. And in one of the year’s biggest upsets, conservative firebrand Rep. Tim Huelskamp lost his Kansas primary to obstetrician Roger Marshall, who had the backing of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Reps. Lummis, Clawson and Huelskamp all voted against the last major spending bill, passed by the House in December 2015.
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