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Republican Majority in Congress Off to Rough Start

U.S. House Speaker John Boehner talks to reporters on Capitol Hill, Jan. 13, 2015.

After weeks of drama, House Republicans have abandoned efforts to tie Homeland Security funding to a provision blocking a presidential executive order on immigration. Analysts and even some Republican lawmakers are questioning what this political defeat is likely to mean for the new Republican majority's ability to govern.

Things were not supposed to work out this way.

Republicans won big in November’s midterm elections, boosting their majority in the House of Representatives to the largest in decades and winning control of the Senate. New Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky proclaimed it was now time for Republicans to show Americans that they can govern, ahead of presidential elections in 2016.

But two months into the 114th Congress, Republicans hit a low point last Friday. Fifty-two conservative House Republicans staged a revolt against House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio, voting against a three-week bill to keep the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) funded.

Boehner had to turn to Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat, to supply the votes for a one-week extension to avoid a politically devastating lapse in funding. Just a few days later, in a humiliating defeat, the House approved DHS funding — without any measures blocking immigration reform — for the rest of this fiscal year, relying on Democratic votes.

House Freedom Caucus

A passionate group of about 50 House Republicans has often been referred to as the Tea Party faction. Some of that group are now calling themselves the House Freedom Caucus, led by Representative Jim Jordan of Ohio. They staunchly oppose President Barack Obama’s executive action to shield up to 5 million undocumented immigrants from deportation, and other executive orders by the president.

At a conservative policy luncheon last month, Republican Representative Raul Labrador of Idaho called it a constitutional crisis and complained that McConnell was effectively letting Democratic Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada run the Senate.

Several conservative congressmen faulted McConnell and Boehner for getting them into another budget showdown, alleging that their leaders postpone standing up to the president until the next crisis.

Republican Representative Thomas Massie of Kentucky conceded that his party’s strategy linking immigration to DHS funding was doomed from the start — since Republicans have always cared deeply about homeland security.

Rebels or 'Cliff Marchers'?

Other Republicans criticize this core group of rebels, saying they make it impossible for the new majority to govern. An editorial in The Wall Street Journal referred to the group as “The Cliff Marchers,” meaning that they are walking over a cliff or being self-destructive. The newspaper said the group was squandering the benefits of being a majority.

Moderate Republican Representative Peter King of New York criticized the group as “self-righteous and delusional.”

Republican Representative Tom Cole of Oklahoma urged his colleagues to fund DHS and let the courts decide on the president’s executive order, which has been temporarily blocked by a U.S. federal court in Texas.

Debt ceiling showdown?

Analysts say this rocky start for the Republican majority in Congress does not bode well for future challenges, including funding other government departments and voting later in the year to raise the U.S. debt ceiling to avoid a default on government financial obligations.

Budget analyst Stan Collender writes that the DHS funding incident was one of the worst political fiascoes he has seen in Washington in decades. He said the question is whether we will see similar episodes play out through the year or whether Boehner has learned that the demands of the rebel wing of his party cannot ultimately prevail.

Asked about the DHS funding drama, Boehner conceded there are some differences on “tactics” in the Republican Party.

But on foreign policy matters, the tables may be turned. This week, Republicans presented a strong show of unity supporting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his opposition to a potential Iran nuclear deal that he argues would not make the world safer.

Netanyahu’s controversial speech — at Republican invitation — to a joint meeting of Congress divided Democrats, with some praising him, but others like Pelosi saying the speech was condescending and an insult to the intelligence of the United States as one of the nations in ongoing talks with Iran.