Last week's budget vote demonstrated why House Republicans are unlikely to accomplish anything significant on the legislative front in 2014.
The House GOP this election year is suffering from something of a Goldilocks complex, in which some members dismiss any given proposal as too hot, and others complain it's too cold, while only a shrinking majority say it's just right. To pass anything without Democratic support, Republicans have precious little margin for error and must strike a balance to satisfy members on both sides of the party's ideological divide.
They achieved it in passing Rep. Paul Ryan's fiscal blueprint—but barely.
The annual budget vote has largely been an uneventful affair since Republicans took back the majority in 2011. In fact, the proposals put forth by Ryan, easily the most popular and well-respected Republican in the House, have represented islands of consensus amid waters churned by internal strife. GOP lawmakers have largely set aside ideological battles and rallied around Ryan's efforts, which are governing blueprints that achieve the party's goal of balancing the budget.
This time was different. A record number of Republicans—12—voted against Ryan's proposal, and the opposition came from all corners of the party. Some moderates thought it slashed too much spending; some conservatives thought it didn't cut enough; others voted against it for a variety of political or ideological purposes.
On top of that, a bloc of conservatives were tempted to join the opposition to send a message to GOP leadership about a maneuver—some called it "sneaky"—to pass a controversial bill by voice vote weeks earlier. Had only seven more GOP members defected, Ryan's budget would have been defeated on the House floor, and Republicans would have gone home for the two-week Easter recess embarrassed and facing fresh speculation about a shakeup in leadership.
Ironically, disaster was averted when some of the conference's most reliable "no" votes wound up supporting the budget, edging a victory for Ryan (and GOP leadership). Lawmakers like Justin Amash of Michigan, Joe Barton of Texas, and Tim Huelskamp of Kansas, all of whom had voted against previous iterations of the Ryan budget, supported this year's version.
Still, the episode laid bare the challenges GOP leadership faces in attempting to pass anything of significance this year. With no Democratic support expected for major GOP proposals, Republicans must maneuver very carefully to secure the 218 Republican votes needed for passage (assuming every eligible member votes).
The Amashes, Bartons, and Huelskamps of the conference voted for the GOP budget. But would they, and like-minded lawmakers, assist leadership in passing a health care alternative? An unemployment bill? An immigration-reform package? History suggests that, unless those measures were tailored to appease the far-Right of the House GOP, the answer would be no.
Republican leadership officials have long been bearish on their ability in an election year to piece together that GOP coalition—especially when voting on big, controversial pieces of legislation—and have therefore settled on a strategy of passing safe measures aimed at uniting the party and keeping the spotlight on the shortcomings of Obamacare. That approach was validated by the budget vote.
For example, Ryan's budget, with its steep cuts to domestic spending programs, proved too conservative for several House Republicans seeking reelection in competitive districts. Rep. Chris Gibson of New York, who faces a stiff Democratic challenge from venture capitalist Sean Eldridge, voted no. So did 10-term Rep. Frank LoBiondo of New Jersey, who's bracing for one of the toughest reelection fights of his career. Both said the budget slashed too much spending, and both occupy vulnerable seats that could swing toward the Democrats with one risky vote.
On the flip side, for some GOP lawmakers, Ryan's budget was not sufficiently conservative. This was embodied by the Georgia delegation, where Reps. Paul Broun, Phil Gingrey, and Jack Kingston are fighting for the rightward flank in this year's Senate primary. Predictably, all three voted against the budget for not cutting deep enough, fast enough. (Broun and Gingrey had voted against previous Ryan budget; Kingston, desperate to demonstrate his ultraconservative bona fides, joined them this time.)
And then, as always, there was the reliable opposition from a predictably unpredictable bloc of Republicans who will skate to reelection in their dark-red districts, yet love to buck their party line nonetheless. In this camp are moderate Rep. David McKinley of West Virginia, who rejects Ryan's steep Medicare cuts; libertarian-leaning Rep. Thomas Massie of Kentucky, who said the budget didn't slash enough spending; and Rep. Austin Scott of Georgia, who said he preferred the Republican Study Committee's far-right alternative.
In the end, Ryan's standing within the conference made it narrowly possible to pass something that faced opposition from both sides of the ideological spectrum. But it's not likely to happen again. After all, if it was that hard to build consensus for a budget that achieves a laundry list of long-held GOP priorities, imagine the difficulty of finding the sweet spot on something more complex, such as a health care alternative (which Republicans were promised a vote on this year).
Republican leadership recognizes the Goldilocks complex. And, having barely escaped last week's budget vote, they understand better than ever the difficulty of getting it just right.