The U.S. Capitol stands in the early morning on October 20, 2020 in Washington, DC. Senate Republicans are looking to hold a confirmation vote for Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett on Monday, October 26, approximately one week before the Presidential election.(Photo by Stefani Reynolds/Getty Images)
What the GOP taking control of the House means
03:15 - Source: CNN

Editor’s Note: Charlie Dent is a former Republican congressman from Pennsylvania who was chair of the House Ethics Committee from 2015 until 2017 and chair of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Military Construction, Veterans Affairs and Related Agencies from 2015 until 2018. He is a CNN political commentator. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. Read more opinion on CNN. This piece has been updated to reflect the latest news.

CNN  — 

Republicans inched their way toward control of the House of Representatives while significantly underperforming expectations. Now that they’ve prevailed with what is likely to be slender majority, the hard task of governing begins.

Assuming Kevin McCarthy manages to win the vote for the speakership on the House floor in January, his governing challenge could prove much more frustrating and difficult than what John Boehner faced a decade ago.

Charlie Dent

Frankly, the challenge for McCarthy and GOP leaders will be even greater than anything former Speakers John Boehner of Ohio and Paul Ryan of Wisconsin ever experienced. Next year, Congress will become more polarized than it is now with MAGA Republicans and progressive Democrats ascendant in their respective caucuses.

History tells us midterm elections are almost never kind to the party of the president, especially when his party controls both chambers of Congress. This year was the exception, as Democrats outperformed expectations and significantly mitigated their losses.

In some ways, there were parallels going into the midterm elections of 2010 and 2022, with Democrats controlling the executive and legislative branches of government – although in 2010 Democrats had much larger governing majorities than their 2022 counterparts.

With a very slender GOP majority in the House, Republican leaders would be wise to reflect upon the challenges faced by Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia in the 112th and 113th Congresses.

The 2010 midterm delivered the GOP a 242-193 seat majority. Since 218 votes are required to pass legislation in the House, Republicans back then had a 24-vote cushion, which seemed to provide a reasonable margin of error for party leaders to advance a legislative agenda. Think again.

A rebellious group of House Republicans, who closely identified with the tea party movement, regularly obstructed Boehner by withholding their votes on partisan procedural matters in an attempt to force the House GOP to adopt more conservative legislation than anyone with an ounce of sense knew could ever be adopted by the US Senate, which requires a 60-vote threshold on most legislation. Even if such legislation could have passed the Senate, it would have been vetoed by former President Barack Obama.

Of course, such constraints never tempered the take-no-prisoners legislative tactics and ambitions of this rejectionist group of members, many of whom would later join the House Freedom Caucus, which delighted in tormenting first Boehner and later Ryan.

Indeed, there was no hill they weren’t prepared to die on. Creating crisis through legislative hostage taking was their modus operandi, and the 2013 government shutdown was their crowning misguided achievement.

Debt ceilings, government funding bills, spending agreements and other must-pass bills were seen as leverage to frustrate governance and bring Washington to its knees. This gang thrived on dysfunction, and they most assuredly took the fun out of dysfunction.

The far-right flank of the Republican Party, egged on by a conservative media echo chamber that thrives on polarization and disdains compromise, claimed their biggest prize in the 2014 Virginia primary by defeating Cantor, who was well respected and popular among his House GOP colleagues.

Cantor was unfairly targeted as an out-of-touch establishment figure who would surrender and capitulate to Democrats on immigration reform. Dave Brat, who defeated Cantor in that primary, was welcomed with open arms by the House Freedom Caucus – only to lose his seat four years later to moderate Democrat Abigail Spanberger.

So what does any of this have to do with the 2022 midterms and the upcoming 118th Congress? In a word, everything.

Barring an 11th-hour rebellion by the MAGA wing of the House GOP Conference or a Trump sabotage, which remains a possibility at this moment, McCarthy will likely become the next Speaker of the House. He fully understands the daunting governing challenge that will be thrust upon him in the new Congress, as does his first deputy Rep. Steve Scalise of Louisiana. They were both part of the GOP leadership team that attempted to manage these chaotic dynamics between 2011 and 2019, before House Democrats gained control of the chamber nearly four years ago.

The political center in Congress is shrinking and that will make consensus harder to find than it already is. There will be fewer GOP House members able to vote for necessary compromises. The pragmatic wing of the GOP conference, those most likely to cut deals, will be much smaller, and leave almost no margin of error for House Republican leaders.

An important function of leadership is telling members hard truths about the reality of divided government in Washington. Will the House GOP leadership push back when the most extreme elements of the conference make absurd demands and not so veiled threats?

This began playing out right after Tuesday’s election, with reports of Freedom Caucus members making demands of McCarthy as a condition of their votes for him to become Speaker. Expect a lot more of these political shakedowns. The bottom line is someone in leadership needs to be the adult in the room to explain hard truths and direct the herd – rather than follow it into easily foreseeable ditches.

The governing challenges for Republicans are real. House Republican votes will be needed to raise the debt ceiling, fund the government and enter into other agreements with the Senate and President Joe Biden. Tuesday’s election outcome has made McCarthy’s task not only more difficult but perilous. McCarthy has no breathing room, as extreme elements within the House GOP conference feel emboldened with their leverage.

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    Another complicating factor will be former President Donald Trump, who regularly undermined House GOP leaders while he was president. Trump will encourage his House loyalists to pressure McCarthy and the GOP leadership team to move the conference recklessly and carelessly on a number of issues like impeaching Biden, raising the debt ceiling, funding the government, supporting Ukraine’s war effort, and obsessing over Hunter Biden’s laptop.

    With Senate Democrats maintaining their very slim majority, the role of the Senate will be essential. As long as the filibuster remains intact, the Senate will be the place, once again, where necessary bipartisan agreements are reached in a divided government. The Senate often boasts of acting as the cooling saucer needed to handle the hot teacup known as the House of Representatives. That saucer may get a lot of work.

    Buckle up for a very bumpy ride next year. Gaining power will prove easier than wielding it.