Republicans, who were expected to be overwhelmed by internal divisions and Tea Party discord, have navigated the first set of rapids with surprising ease following the midterm elections, while Democrats have suffered a level of chaos that most did not foresee.
It is still early, and there is plenty of time and potential for the GOP to fall apart under the weight of demands from grassroots activists and conservative groups. But the impending GOP civil war predicted by many has yet to materialize.
House Republicans have avoided fights for the number three and four positions in leadership. Pete Sessions of Texas chose to stay at the National Republican Congressional Committee, declining to challenge Kevin McCarthy of California for House Majority Whip. And Michele Bachmann of Minnesota bowed out of a run against Jeb Hensarling of Texas for House Republican Conference Chair.
Bachmann, in particular, could have posed a major headache for the soon-to-be House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio if she wanted to, due to her national profile as a Tea Party leader. But Bachmann kept her powder dry, giving herself more leverage for future showdowns and earning points for being a team player.
House Democrats, meanwhile, have been thrown into a tumult by current Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s decision to remain the leader of the caucus. The surprise move has pushed Majority Leader Steny Hoyer of Maryland and Majority Whip James Clyburn of South Carolina into an acrimonious fight for the number two position in the minority: House Minority Whip.
Next week promises to only continue these trends. Republicans will hold leadership elections that are all but guaranteed to go swimmingly, and will establish a steering committee that will hold sway over committee posts and other matters.
House Democrats, meanwhile, will confront the unpleasantness of seeing one of their top leaders over the past four years shunted aside to a lesser position. If it is Clyburn, the outcry from the Congressional Black Caucus could be loud.
Democrats Thursday shrugged off the discord, attributing it to the trauma of a historic defeat.
“We just lost 60 plus seats. Who thought the week after would be smooth?” said one House Democratic aide.
Another House Democratic leadership staffer said that “whenever a party suffers losses like we did, they have to regroup.”
“Part of that is taking a hard look at leadership and party priorities. Republicans went through the same thing after they suffered losses in ’06 that I think they’re still struggling with internally,” the Democrat said. “If you look closely, you’ll see there’s a tension in the top ranks of the GOP leadership.”
“One misstep for Boehner and they’ll tumble into their own internal battle,” the aide said.
Norm Ornstein, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, said that he was “mildly surprised at the Republicans’ smooth sail so far, less at the Dems turbulence.”
“It is usually tough after a massive loss. But I would not make any linear projections,” Ornstein said. “There will be big strains within the GOP once the legislative process actually gets underway — and I am not convinced that Bachmann will now turn into a reflexive loyalist to the leadership.”