Chaos. Dysfunction. An abject disaster. Those were some of the more printable projections of the House GOP as it struggled to elect Speaker Kevin McCarthy in January.
Two months on, however, Republicans have defied those predictions, maintaining a general sense of unity as they work their way through an early slate of crowd-pleasing bills.
There have been fights and struggles — a key immigration bill has been derailed by a vocal group of detractors and efforts to impeach Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas have stumbled — but Republicans have, for the most part, found areas to agree on.
And they’ve even notched an early surprising victory in overturning the District of Columbia’s crime bill, forcing a comical retreat by President Biden.
“I think that we’re driving an agenda and cranking out agenda items,” said Rep. Nick Langworthy, New York Republican. “The fact that Biden’s going to sign the D.C. crime law into effect I think is a huge victory. It’s showing success, progress. You don’t see that on the other side of the Capitol”.
The battle over Mr. McCarthy’s ascent to the speakership was seen by many political observers as a symptom of internal tumult. But lawmakers themselves say it was a clarifying moment, underscoring how little leeway the GOP has in a chamber where they hold 222 seats, just a handful over the majority-making threshold of 218.
“That was a hell of a week, that speaker’s race,” said Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, Georgia Republican. “But for everybody to come together like we are, especially with our razor-thin majority, I think that shows we’re unified here and we want to do a good job with our majority.”
Mr. Langworthy said the speaker’s fight “showed everyone the give-and-take that we have to have to be successful.”
“That was a very important process to go through because it kind of showed what a small majority is all about,” he said.
Mr. McCarthy had to survive 15 rounds of voting to win the speaker’s post, as he negotiated with holdouts on his right flank who argued he wasn’t committed enough to their conservative principles.
Analysts said the fracas exposed deep divisions within the GOP. And despite unity over the last couple of months, they still expect chaos to win out.
So far, the GOP has put pretty popular bills on the floor.
The legislation to overturn the District’s crime rewrite cleared with the support of more than 30 Democrats — and that number would have been much higher had Mr. Biden made his support known earlier.
Another measure to overturn the District’s law on noncitizen voting cleared the House with more than 40 Democrats in support.
And a bill to declassify the intelligence regarding the origins of the coronavirus passed unanimously.
Some other bills have been more partisan.
A measure to overturn vaccine mandates for international travelers drew seven Democratic votes.
And legislation that would create a general prohibition on federal employees using their positions to push social media platforms to censor speech cleared on a 219-206 straight party-line vote.
Sarah Binder, a political scientist at George Washington University and the Brookings Institution, pointed to bills the GOP promised but that have not yet made it to the floor. One would slap new limits on Mr. Biden’s border policies, while another would have restricted taxpayer funding for abortion.
She also said the real challenges await, with looming fights over whether to write a budget and how to raise the government’s debt limit.
“The tough issues haven’t yet either been allowed to come to the floor or are really moving very slowly,” she said. “The things that have trickled through are pretty narrow.”
Given the divisions, with Democrats holding sway in the Senate and Mr. Biden in the White House, Ms. Binder said the House GOP was always going to be constrained in its legislative accomplishments. It was supposed to make a bigger mark with its oversight.
Even there, however, Ms. Binder said Republicans are struggling.
“Lots of hearings, lots of subpoenas, but no coherent story about holding the Biden administration accountable,” she said.
Former Rep. Thomas M. Davis III ran House Republicans’ campaign committee from 2001 to 2004 when the House was also narrowly divided with a slim GOP majority. He said they were able to post some significant wins, but he said circumstances have changed.
For one thing, far more lawmakers face their biggest test in the primary than in the general election. That often rewards lawmakers willing to defy party leaders and hinder action.
“Basically, the middle has collapsed and that’s the problem that McCarthy has had,” Mr. Davis said. “Every one of these rebels is from absolutely safe deep-red districts. We didn’t have that 20 years ago.”
He said the debt ceiling debate will be the real test for Mr. McCarthy and fellow Republicans.
Rep. James Comer, Kentucky Republican, acknowledged the upcoming tests but said the GOP is aware of the stakes.
“We don’t have any other options,” he said. “We have to figure it out. It’s our time to govern and people want to see whether or not we can govern, and I think we’re proving we can at the beginning. But we’ve got a lot of tough issues in the near future.”
Rep. Ryan Zinke compared the GOP in the first week of the new Congress to Washington’s ragtag Continental Army before it tasted a first victory.
Half of the House Republicans began serving in 2019 or later, meaning they had never been part of a congressional majority. And those who had been around spent the last three years serving under COVID-19 restrictions, able to attend hearings by video and cast votes by proxy without having to be in Washington.
“You didn’t get to know your colleagues,” Mr. Zinke said.
As the minority, they had little say in legislation and attracted little media attention, adding to frustration and isolation. Now, the GOP has a hand in setting the agenda — and indeed has even worked the White House over a bit, forcing Mr. Biden’s embarrassing reversal on the District of Columbia’s crime bill.
“Winning creates muscle memory,” Mr. Zinke said.
The former Navy SEAL added: “I think there’s a recognition we’re better as a group. It’s very difficult to make advances when you have snipers within the perimeter.”