In late December 2022, incoming Majority Leader Steve Scalise (R-La.) pledged that in the first two weeks of the House Republican majority, the conference would pass 11 “ready-to-go” bills that would contribute to “making our ambitious agenda a reality.”
While House Republicans eventually passed eight of those proposals — and a handful of other partisan measures — their agenda never fully materialized. None of the proposals they tout as “promises kept” were among the 29 bills signed into law by President Biden last year, making this House Republican majority complicit in the most ineffective year for Congress in decades.
Last year’s track record was no surprise for House Republicans, who point to deep personal tensions, profound ideological differences and a hard-right wing willing to disrupt government functions as reasons their fractious conference has struggled to govern. And they remain skeptical that they can achieve their agenda in 2024 as tensions linger following the ouster of former speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), which kept the House at a standstill for three weeks, delayed consideration of critical funding bills and caused even their own constituents to wonder whether Republicans could handle the basic task of governance.
“It’s been a tough year for us,” said Rep. Richard Hudson (R-N.C.), who as the chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) is tasked with keeping the majority. “I think most people in Congress — Republicans and Democrats — ran to make a difference, to make the country better, not to come up here and have these kinds of disagreements. So it is frustrating, and it’s tiring.”
Many Republicans hope the new year brings with it a broad desire to govern and, in turn, prove to the public that they deserve another term in control of the House. But the question of how Republicans across the ideological spectrum define success is already primed to plague the conference as it starts the year with just three votes to spare to pass anything through its fragile majority.
The test starts imminently, with several must-address priorities looming before April including two government funding deadlines, possible supplemental funding for foreign democracies paired with border security provisions, and reauthorization of the Federal Aviation Administration and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.
Whether the government continues to operate uninterrupted will ultimately be determined by Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.), who must again decide whether to lean on Democrats to pass bipartisan proposals or reject compromise in an effort to appease his hard-right flank.
“We have to start governing. … Playing politics with every single issue is not helpful,” said Rep. David G. Valadao (R-Calif.), who represents a swing district. “We need to get to the point where we can start passing legislation and getting something to the president’s desk that actually solves problems for the American people.”
A majority of Republicans, more than a dozen of whom spoke to The Washington Post, agreed they need to pass bills that will allow them to draw policy contrasts with Democrats on the campaign trail. But hard-liners are much more willing to shut down the government or risk the majority in an effort to ensure that their campaign promises — particularly to rein in federal spending and secure the U.S.-Mexico border — become law. Members of the House Freedom Caucus are particularly incensed over Johnson’s decision to previously support a short-term extension of federal funding levels — set by congressional Democrats in 2022 — to keep the government open, as well as their colleagues’ willingness to vote with Democrats rather than force conservative demands. Hard-liners have already sent warning shots in hopes of influencing Johnson and GOP leaders to use every opportunity to extract policy concessions from a Democratic-led Senate and White House.
That warning was not heeded as Johnson reached an agreement over the weekend with House Democrats and the Senate to abide by the full spending levels set by the Biden administration in a debt ceiling deal last year to fund the government through September, greatly irritating fiscal conservatives who were hoping to leverage their majority to institute significant spending cuts. While the agreement on how much to spend among Hill leaders does claw back billions in funds previously appropriated to combat the coronavirus pandemic and the Internal Revenue Service — two targets the GOP has vehemently called for to repeal — the bipartisan deal is largely a win for Democrats and Senate appropriators.
“Never put it past Republicans to steal defeat from the jaws of victory,” said Rep. Chip Roy (R-Tex.), who has been vocally critical of the lack of accomplishments to warrant keeping the majority. He said his colleagues were mad at him after he lambasted the conference in an animated, hour-long speech on the House floor late last year. But he was unapologetic. “I’m not the sharpest knife in the drawer, but I can read the room. Our people are not excited.”
Now that the roughly 30-member Freedom Caucus has dismissed the deal as a “total failure,” Johnson will inevitably have to rely on Democrats to pass the compromise through the House given the narrow majority he has.
Members of the hard-right flank are encouraging a partial government shutdown as soon as Jan. 19, arguing that doing so would force Democrats to enact changes at the southern border and reduce spending. While a bipartisan group of senators is working to strike a deal that would pair Republican demands to tighten border security with Democratic-backed funding for Ukraine, House hard-liners are pushing for their partisan border security bill to be adopted in negotiations. But 20 House Republicans already voted against that bill late last year out of protest that it was tied to a short-term government funding bill, another sign of the difficulty Republicans will have passing any legislation.
Rep. Dusty Johnson (R-S.D.), who chairs the conservative Main Street Caucus, argued that it is possible for Republicans to get back to governing as they did in early 2023, when they put ideological differences aside to pass conservative bills related to the border, parents’ rights in education, energy policy and transgender athletes in women’s sports. None became law, however.
“I think we could potentially be on the cusp of returning to that type of productivity,” Johnson said. “If we can do that, that’s really going to give us something to talk about. I think people have gotten a little fatigued with these battle cries for impossible action.”
The first test will be addressing two funding deadlines to keep the government afloat through September — an issue that routinely tested Republicans in 2023 and played a role in McCarthy’s ouster. While top Republican and Democratic leaders in the House and Senate agreed on a top-line funding number for the 2024 fiscal year, they still need to direct appropriators on how much money to allot to fund specific departments, angering Republicans who fear that starting the year with a partial or full government shutdown would blunt their argument that the party can govern. Congress has 10 days upon its return this week to avert a partial government shutdown if there isn’t a spending deal in place by Jan. 19. A similar funding deadline looms on Feb. 2.
“I’ve yet to see what the legislative agenda is going to be for moving things forward,” said Rep. David Joyce (R-Ohio), who chairs the centrist Republican Governance Group, after the group met with Johnson’s policy staff about the legislative year ahead. “Without having that agenda and looking at going forward, basically we’ll continue with the same problems we have with no resolution in sight.”
Johnson’s office said that the speaker is intent on “laying out an agenda for members in the weeks ahead.”
Though Republicans largely agree on policy objectives, they remain deeply divided on how to achieve united, partisan wins that could help them credibly argue that their party deserves to retain the House majority and take back control of the Senate and White House. But even ideas on how to keep the majority are split: Hard-right lawmakers insist the MAGA agenda will help elect more like-minded hard-liners who can help enact laws that advance ultraconservative goals, while more pragmatic Republicans believe their chances of keeping the House rely on reelecting swing-district incumbents and other conservatives willing to compromise.
The NRCC is targeting 37 Democratic-held districts that they believe are within their grasp as Biden’s approval rating has reached all-time lows and polling has shown that voters prefer Republicans on key issues like the economy and public safety.
Candidate quality also remains front of mind for Republicans, especially recruiting conservatives from targeted districts who are women, people of color or military veterans. That focus follows a “formula of success,” as Hudson described it, that McCarthy established in recent elections. In 2020 and 2022, McCarthy oversaw the largest class of Republican women in the House’s history and welcomed roughly 30 new members with minority backgrounds, including the largest group ever of Hispanic House Republicans.
As for the top of the ticket — following a 2022 election in which many Senate and gubernatorial candidates endorsed by Donald Trump lost in key races — Republicans find themselves again most likely running with the embattled former president, who is facing dozens of felony charges in several criminal cases. Hudson said he is not going to tell Republicans “what they should do in the presidential” race and noted that House Republicans were still able to pick up 15 seats in 2020 when Trump was on the ticket and lost the presidency.
Sarah Chamberlain, president and CEO of Main Street Partnership, the strategic campaign arm for the Main Street Caucus, said candidates should try to localize kitchen-table issues that cross the ideological spectrum. Specifically on the economy, she has encouraged conservatives to home in on the affordability argument, talking about persisting inflation and high interest rates that are preventing younger generations from buying homes. Addressing overall security is another issue Republicans should stump on, Chamberlain and Hudson said, as polling shows that many voters have concerns about crime in their communities.
The 2022 midterms taught Republicans several lessons, none more consequential than the electoral potency of abortion rights. The overturning of federal abortion protections contributed to a much smaller majority than Republicans expected, but it also influenced them to punt consideration of politically controversial abortion-related measures — another cause of splintering.
Hudson said the blowback taught Republicans to confront the issue rather than run away from it.
“By ignoring this, we really developed a brand problem. I don’t think we have a policy problem,” he said. “I just think Republicans need to do a better job of articulating what we’re for. I think when we talk about common-sense support for reasonable limits (on when abortions can be performed), coupled with exemptions, that’s where most voters are.”
Republicans are hoping that in an election year, Johnson prioritizes passing bills on policy issues that are central to the party’s campaign promises. Several GOP lawmakers and aides who were in closed-door meetings with the speaker or his policy staff before the holiday break said that Johnson’s team is eyeing pairing red-meat agenda items to appease the hard-right flank with policies relevant to local communities. Some pointed to a week in December as an example, when House Republicans formally approved an impeachment inquiry into Biden before passing a bill that would allow schools to offer whole milk as an option again. House Republicans also will begin contempt of Congress proceedings against the president’s son, Hunter Biden, this week after he defied a congressional subpoena last month.
But vulnerable and pragmatic Republicans were stunned when they heard that Johnson’s policy team had not considered devoting floor time to passing measures relating to immigration and border security, even incremental messaging bills that would not be taken up by the Senate. While Johnson’s team noted that the House had already passed H.R. 2, Rep. Juan Ciscomani (R-Ariz.) pushed the speaker’s advisers during a Republican Governance Group meeting last month to at least put some modest proposals on the floor. Some of the more centrist policies could create a political dilemma for Democrats, as it could force vulnerable incumbents representing swing districts to take tough votes on the issue in an election year.
That push — as well as personal pleas by Rep. Tony Gonzales (R-Tex.), who represents a large part of the U.S.-Mexico border — motivated Johnson to lead more than 60 Republicans to Eagle Pass, Tex., last week to show that border security remains their priority along with curbing federal spending. In another sign that House Republicans are leaning into the border as a political wedge issue, House Homeland Security Chairman Mark Green (R-Tenn.) said his committee will launch impeachment proceedings into Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas this week, calling him “the greatest domestic threat to the national security” for not curbing the flow of migrants into the U.S.
Johnson at the border reiterated that the Senate should take up their partisan border bill — which Democrats have said is a non-starter — as the immediate solution instead of House Republicans working with Senate negotiators to pass bipartisan changes.
But passing any bills with Democratic support — roughly 60 were passed in bipartisan fashion in 2023 — is considered traitorous behavior by Republican hard-liners, who believe compromise will only continue to bloat federal spending and water down other measures they care about.
“We talk a lot about being united in the Republican conference, but we got to be united in mission and goals and priorities and policy, and it can’t just be united to get the majority, because you have to earn the majority,” said Rep. Bob Good (R-Va.), the new Freedom Caucus chairman who was one of eight Republicans to support ousting McCarthy. “The American people don’t care who has the majority. They care who’s fighting for them.”
Leigh Ann Caldwell contributed to this report.