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“Bigger Margins and Wider Divides in Congress”
Capping a campaign that saw Americans expressing dissatisfaction with issues from the war in Iraq to the economy, voters presented Barack Obama with a decidedly more Democratic Congress Tuesday, providing the president-elect with Capitol Hill support crucial to enacting his agenda.
Republicans said they had been prepared for a dismal Election Day. “We expected this kind of night,” said Sen. John Ensign , R-Nev., chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee. Ensign said voters blamed Republicans for the financial downturn and candidates paid the price on Election Day.
Even while basking in their victory, congressional Democrats pleaded for patience, making it clear that their agenda cannot be enacted overnight. “We have a great deal of work to do,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi , D-Calif., said in an election night speech in Washington, D.C. “And we can do some of it right from the start. But the rest of us will take a while. The rest of it will take a while. We must take a very deliberate steady course for America”
Pelosi also attempted to strike an air of bipartisanship Tuesday night. However, a key moderate House Republican who often worked with Democrats was defeated in his reelection bid. Rep. Christopher Shays , R-Conn., first elected in 1987, was defeated by Democrat Jim Himes. But in the Senate, Sen. Susan Collins , R-Maine, a key GOP moderate who also has a reputation for working with members of the other party, managed to hold onto her seat.
Republican losses in the House could trigger leadership challenges. If so, Virginia Rep. Eric Cantor is the man to watch. The longtime appointed deputy to Minority Whip Roy Blunt of Missouri, Cantor passed up a chance to run against Blunt after the GOP lost 30 seats in the 2006 election, even though many of his colleagues wanted him to mount a challenge to his mentor. Cantor has kept his cards extremely close to his chest in recent weeks and is considered a good bet to challenge Blunt -- if Blunt doesn’t step aside in the wake of Tuesday night’s losses.
Cantor is also viewed as the candidate with the best base from which to make a run at Minority Leader John Boehner of Ohio. Many Republicans, predict that Boehner will survive the leadership elections, despite the GOP hemorrhaging seats for a second consecutive election and general frustration among the remaining lawmakers.
Colleagues continue to hold Boehner in high regard, according to longtime Republican operatives and congressional aides. They cite the success Republicans believe they had in challenging Democrats on oil and gas drilling over the summer. They also say Boehner was particularly deft in spreading blame on issues that divided most of the rank and file from their leadership -- most notably the $700 billion bailout of the financial sector that attracted less than one-third of the Republican Conference even with the backing of Boehner, Minority Whip Roy Blunt , Chief Deputy Whip Eric Cantor of Virginia and Conference Chairman Adam Putnam of Florida.
“Boehner is 100 percent safe. He could commit a crime on videotape and still be re-elected as Republican leader. Members like him. They think he’s a good guy who cares about them, which he is. It’s just that simple,” said a senior Republican aide who does not work for Boehner. “And his brilliant move to put Blunt in charge of the bailout negotiations has further inoculated him from any hostility in the Conference.”
But if Boehner is able to keep his job, there may be a more important factor: His ability to present himself as a leader willing to push reform despite having been his party’s floor leader since winning a February 2006 election to succeed then-Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, in that post. Wisconsin Rep. Paul D. Ryan , argues that Republicans need to be a party of reform. “We have to reclaim the mantle of the reform party. We have to sweep out of our party those who stand in the way of reform,” Ryan said.
Former Majority Leader Richard K. Armey of Texas, who came to power with Newt Gingrich and Boehner in 1995, said Boehner can lead that charge now that congressional Republicans are freed from pressure to support a president of their own party.
“He doesn’t have that problem anymore, and I think you’re going to see John Boehner as the small-government revolutionary that he was when he first came to Congress,” Armey said. “I think he becomes, in Washington, the energy center around which you rebuild the Republican Party.”
Putnam wasted no time in announcing his decision. “I believe it is time to step off the leadership ladder and return my focus to crafting public policy solutions for America’s generational challenges — the very reason I ran for Congress in the first place,” Putnam, a 34-year-old Floridian who has been viewed as a rising star in his party since his first election to Congress in 2000, wrote to colleagues. “With the issues before us today come bipartisan opportunities and partisan differences. My current role obligates me to the latter and too often excludes me from the former. I want to fight the battles worth fighting and lock arms to strengthen our nation whenever possible.”
Texas Rep. Jeb Hensarling , chairman of the conservative Republican Study Committee, is likely to announce his candidacy, according to GOP aides. “Hensarling is inclined to run,” said a Republican aide close to Hensarling. But there are other members who could run, including former Conference Vice Chairman Jack Kingston of Georgia and Darrell Issa of California, according to a senior Republican aide.