‘You Control Nothing’: House Republicans Brace for Life in the Minority

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“They say you will have a lot more time on your hands and will vote ‘no’ a lot more often,” Representative Adam Kinzinger, Republican of Illinois, said of being in the minority.CreditCreditTom Williams/CQ Roll Call, via Getty Images

About two-thirds of Republicans returning to the House for the 116th Congress this week have never experienced the exquisite pain of being on the outs in an institution where the party in charge is totally in charge. Majority control runs the gamut from determining the floor agenda to determining access to the prime meeting space. It will be a rude awakening for many who have known only their exalted majority status.

“They say you will have a lot more time on your hands and will vote ‘no’ a lot more often,” said Representative Adam Kinzinger of Illinois, who was elected in the 2010 wave that handed control of the House to Republicans in President Barack Obama’s first midterm election.

The reign lasted eight years before the November midterms and the Democratic gain of 40 seats, a thorough beating that many Republicans did not anticipate. Mr. Kinzinger said the culture shift might be hardest on those colleagues who, unlike himself, believed the election was going to turn out quite differently.

“We have come to grips with the shock of the election,” he said, “but the shock of governing will still be a wake-up call for some people.”

Representative Tom Cole, Republican of Oklahoma and a veteran of stints in both the minority and the majority, groaned when asked what advice he had for his House brethren who had tasted only life on top.

“Oh. Sheesh,” Mr. Cole said, hemming and hawing before advising, only half-jokingly, “Smoke a lot; drink a lot.”

“You are going to get some real disappointment,” he said of his colleagues. “They are going to find out how good they had it in the majority, particularly when we had a Republican Senate, as frustrating as that could be.”

Unlike the Senate, where individual members can exert some influence whether they are in the majority or not, those on the sidelines in the House have few options. After years of being in the know about the House agenda and majority strategy, Republican lawmakers will now struggle to even ascertain what the schedule is.

“You control nothing,” said Representative Peter T. King, the New York Republican who will be experiencing his fourth transition in House power — 1995 to Republican control, 2007 to Democratic supremacy, back to Republicans in 2011 and now another reassertion of Democratic might. “As far as calling the shots, we have nothing like the Senate where one guy can filibuster. You have no recourse.”

Mr. King, a former chairman of the Homeland Security Committee, remembers being shut out of conference rooms when Democrats regained the majority in 2007. Republicans anticipate finding the convenient meeting rooms they took for granted will be off limits.

Coping with a change in House control is a relatively new phenomenon for Republicans. Before their stunning seizure of the House in 1994, Republicans had been in the wilderness for 40 years and were quite used to it.

Perhaps most shocking to some Republicans may be the fickleness of a news media horde that used to pursue them and hang on to their every observation. Now reporters lingering in the speaker’s lobby off the House floor won’t have nearly as much interest and have already begun migrating to the Democratic end of the room.

“Welcome to the brave new world,” said Rahm Emanuel, the Chicago mayor who joined the House as a member of the Democratic minority and helped steer Democrats back to power in the 2006 midterms as head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. “It is basically like being on TV with the mute button on. They can see you, but they can’t hear you.”

“You will definitely be getting your work-life balance correct because you really will be spending more time with your family,” Mr. Emanuel said.

Trying to find the bright side, Representative Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington, a member of the departing Republican leadership, said it was an opportunity for Republicans to better hone their message.

“Being in the minority is a chance to think big picture and be visionary and make sure we are drawing the contrast between us and the Democrats,” Ms. McMorris Rodgers said. “As Republicans, we really need to focus on what it is going to take to win back the voters we lost in 2018.”

“We lost too many women, Republican women, in the suburbs and we lost men and women,” she said. “We must win hearts and minds, and we can do it.”

One big question mark for how bad life could get for Republicans is the approach taken by Representative Nancy Pelosi of California, the longtime Democratic leader and presumptive speaker. When she first ran the House from 2007 to 2011, Ms. Pelosi oversaw a strongly top-down management structure as she worked with Mr. Obama and the Democratic Senate on economic recovery, the new health care law and a climate change measure that died in the Senate. Republicans were uniformly opposed to the Democratic efforts and had little role in the legislative process.

Ms. Pelosi is now under pressure from some in her own party to cede some authority, give committee leaders more leeway and bring more Democrats into House decision making. As she rounded up votes in her drive to return as speaker, Ms. Pelosi also agreed to demands to enact rules changes intended to make the House more bipartisan and empower the rank and file. As a result, Republicans could have a chance to get proposals considered in committee and by the House provided they can secure some level of Democratic buy-in.

“It looks like the place is going to breathe a little bit more,” Mr. Cole said.

One huge difference from the last time Democrats swung back into power is inescapable — President Trump. While Democrats had their differences with President George W. Bush, particularly over the war in Iraq, the volatile conflicts with Mr. Trump are at another level entirely. Democrats are already digging in for a series of investigations that will provide a unique challenge for House Republicans if they choose to take up the president’s cause.

“There are going to be a lot of investigations,” Mr. King said. “We have to be ready to be on defense when the investigations go too far.”

All of the Republicans said there was still a possibility, even in this hyper-polarized congressional era, for the two parties to find some consensus on a few issues, notably infrastructure. But given that the new Congress is kicking off with a shutdown caused by a deep partisan stalemate, it is hard to see much room for big compromises.

Republicans say they must adapt and try for a comeback.

“Everything changes rapidly,” Mr. Cole said. “Two years is not an eternity. You can get through these things. We need to hang together, pick our shots and keep moving.”

And with fewer Republicans around, Mr. Kinzinger said, “it might be easier to get a seat at the State of the Union.”

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‘You Control Nothing’: House G.O.P. Braces for Life in Minority

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