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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

GOP legislative agenda hits snags amid party divisions

Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) speaks during a press conference at the Capitol in Washington, Jan. 24, 2023. Republicans have pulled back on legislation to crack down on unauthorized immigrants and support law enforcement as internal disputes conspire with a tiny majority to freeze them in place.

By Catie Edmondson and Annie Karni

A bill targeting progressive prosecutors whom Republicans have long considered too lenient is facing a wall of opposition from libertarian-leaning members of Congress.

Hard-right lawmakers have effectively blocked legislation that would require law enforcement officials running background checks on firearm purchasers to report if a prospective buyer is in the United States illegally.

And House Republicans’ marquee bill to crack down on immigration at the border with Mexico has been derailed by a faction within the party, including some more mainstream GOP members, who regard it as overly restrictive, fearing it would effectively end asylum in the United States.

Six weeks into their majority, Republican leaders have found themselves paralyzed on some of the biggest issues they promised to address as they pressed to win control of the House last year, amid internal policy disputes that have made it difficult to unify their tiny yet ideologically diverse majority.

They have had to pull back even on some measures that were supposed to be easy to pass, messaging bills once described as “ready-to-go legislation” intended to articulate House Republicans’ values and force politically vulnerable Democrats to take tough votes. It is an early indication of the unwieldy nature of the House Republican conference and a mark of how challenging it will be to reach consensus among themselves on far more consequential legislation that lies ahead, such as raising the debt ceiling and funding the government.

“When we deal with immigration,” Speaker Kevin McCarthy said, in a sentiment that could have applied to a variety of topics, “a lot of members have a lot of different positions.”

House Republicans have succeeded in recent weeks in winning party-line passage of a number of messaging bills that are essentially dead on arrival in the Democratic-controlled Senate, including legislation to repeal vaccine mandates and declare the pandemic over; a bill that could subject some doctors who perform abortions to criminal penalties; and measures curbing President Joe Biden’s ability to tap the nation’s petroleum reserves.

A bill authorizing the creation of a select committee on the Chinese Communist Party received an overwhelming bipartisan vote. Republicans also won Democratic votes on a bill declaring an end to the coronavirus pandemic and others that aim to overturn a rewrite of the District of Columbia’s century-old criminal code.

Republican leaders have trumpeted those votes and noted with pride that they have allowed votes on amendments to legislation offered by any lawmaker, reversing a practice that rank-and-file Democrats and Republicans alike had groused shut them out of the legislative process.

“Let’s just judge the few weeks we’ve had now to the last Congress,” McCarthy said. “This is the first time in seven years any bill has come to the floor on an open rule.”

Yet behind the scenes, even bringing up legislation once described by Rep. Steve Scalise of Louisiana, the majority leader, as “ready to go” has been fraught, with hand-wringing by right-wing lawmakers on some measures and concerns by mainstream conservatives on others. The House adjourned Thursday for a two-week recess.

Some Republicans from politically competitive districts argue that, in making an array of concessions to the hard right in his quest to become speaker, McCarthy has put forth an extreme-right legislative agenda that will alienate crucial voting groups, including independent voters.

“We’re doing everything we can right now to lose the majority in two years,” said Rep. Nancy Mace of South Carolina, a libertarian-leaning Republican from a competitive district. “It is independent, swing, purple districts that got us the majority — barely got us the majority. We nominated candidates that couldn’t win general elections; we floundered on the post-Roe era.”

She said she wanted the chance to “show what kind of legislation is possible with more independent-minded leadership.”

A well of opposition to the border bill, led by Rep. Tony Gonzales of Texas, emerged from lawmakers from diffuse corners of the conference, including Floridians who worried about the implications for the Cuban diaspora, members of the New York delegation and members of the center-right Main Street Caucus, who argued that the three-page bill would essentially end asylum — a charge that the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Chip Roy of Texas, has denied.

McCarthy, who had planned to put the measure to a vote last month, was forced to delay action after concluding that, with all Democrats opposed, he would not be able to muster a Republican majority to push it through.

“It’s going back to committee,” Gonzales said tartly, “where it belongs.”

It was the first instance of mainstream rank-and-file Republicans, who steadfastly backed McCarthy during his protracted fight for speaker even as he agreed to major concessions to the right, flexing their muscles in the new majority.

“We have nearly 80 people in Main Street,” said Rep. Don Bacon, R-Neb. “In a four-vote majority, we should have some muscles on that.”

Bacon said that in a meeting with McCarthy’s chief of staff, he had appealed to the speaker not to bring up the border bill without substantial changes.

“I got a commitment, and that was what I needed to hear,” he said. “I was able to speak up and say this is BS. I think the border bill will get improved.”

Some of the dissent has sprung from lingering resentment from McCarthy’s struggle to become speaker and the confidential deal he struck with the hard right to win. Some center-right Republicans believed McCarthy had secretly promised right-wing members that he would fast-track votes both on the border bill and on a separate tax measure that would abolish the IRS and replace the federal income tax with a 30% sales tax.

An aide in McCarthy’s office said that was never the case and both were always supposed to be considered by committees, where they can be amended, before reaching the floor.

Republican leaders did, however, scrap a scheduled vote on a bill by Rep. Nicole Malliotakis of New York, that would require prosecutors to report statistics, including the number of cases they declined to prosecute for certain crimes. The measure was supposed to be part of a tough-on-crime message Republicans are pushing, as they criticize the Biden administration and Democrats for being too lenient at a time of rising crime.

But the same ultraconservative members who resisted voting to elect McCarthy speaker for a week last month objected to the bill, arguing that the legislation was an overreach by Congress that violated states’ rights. Other lawmakers argued that the reporting requirements would be too onerous for local prosecutors already struggling with staffing issues.

Even a long-promised vote popular with the Republican base — kicking Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., off the Foreign Affairs Committee — became complicated. Just as a handful of Republican lawmakers publicly expressed misgivings with the resolution, citing concerns about due process, another small group was unable to make it to Washington to vote, including Rep. Greg Steube of Florida, who was seriously injured after falling off a ladder at his home.

That left Republican leaders pushing off bringing the resolution to the House floor as McCarthy personally sought to turn around the defectors.

It ultimately passed.

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