For incoming Majority Leader Eric Cantor and his House Republicans, something strange happened on the way to Wednesday’s “Opening Day” of the new Congress.
For two years, Cantor and his colleagues campaigned against high deficits. Now, in the new majority’s first major act, they plan to vote to increase the deficit by $143 billion as part of a repeal of health-care reform.
For two years, Cantor and his colleagues bemoaned the Democrats’ abuse of House rules to circumvent committees and to prevent Republicans from offering amendments. Now, Cantor confirmed on Tuesday, Republicans will employ the very same abuses as they attempt the repeal.
For two years, the Republicans complained about unrelenting Democratic partisanship. Now they’re planning no fewer than 10 investigations of the Obama administration, and the man leading most of those has already branded Obama’s “one of the most corrupt administrations” in history.
For two years, the Republican minority vowed to return power to the people. Now the House Republican majority is asking lobbyists which regulations to repeal, hiring lobbyists to key staff positions and hobnobbing with lobbyists at big-ticket Washington fundraisers.
Even before the speaker’s gavel was passed at noon from Nancy Pelosi to John Boehner, it appeared that the Republicans are determined to form just as arrogant and overreaching a majority as the one they defeated.
Slate’s John Dickerson questioned Cantor about this conundrum at a session the incoming majority leader had with reporters in his new offices Tuesday afternoon. Recalling that Obama settled a 2009 argument with Cantor by reminding the lawmaker that “we won” the election, Dickerson asked Cantor: “Why shouldn’t Democrats take that same message from the way you’ve structured things with the repeal of health care?”
Cantor’s answer? We won.
“It has been litigated according to the American people,” he said. “What the American people are saying by the outcome of this election is we don’t like this outside-the-mainstream agenda we’ve seen coming from Washington these last two years,” he added.
This claim that the election gave Republicans a sweeping mandate was a recurring trope in Cantor’s question-and-answer session. “We know very clearly that that election was a repudiation of what had gone on in this town,” he said. In particular, he said, the election was a repudiation of health-care reform.
“We just need to repeal it as the American people have spoken out and said,” Cantor argued. What’s more, Cantor said, “the American people are expecting quick action,” and if Democrats in the Senate try to block the Republicans’ agenda, “they’ll have to answer to the American people.”
This was a rather expansive interpretation of the mandate voters gave Republicans in November. In exit polls, 48 percent said the new law should be repealed — while a nearly identical 47 percent said it should be left in place or expanded. Among voters that day, 41 percent held a favorable view of Republicans, no better than the 44 percent who thought favorably of the Democrats and Obama.
In the weeks after the election, many Republicans acknowledged that they had received something less than the full endorsement of the public. But the closer they got to Opening Day, the more they came to resemble the majority they had just vanquished.
The incoming majority vowed to avoid a lavish celebration of their ascent to power — but then a group of a dozen GOP House freshmen arranged a fundraising extravaganza ($50,000 for the VIP suite) at the W Hotel with singer LeAnn Rimes.
Republicans assembled new rules to avoid adding to the deficit — but exempted from the rules the health care repeal and any tax cuts.
The new majority promised an “open” process to repeal health care reform — but then decided to hold the vote using the same sort of “closed” rule that Democrats used to prevent the minority from offering amendments.
Along the way, the incoming majority has shifted from the populist themes of the campaign to a corporate message: asking lobbying groups for “assistance” in striking down regulations and hiring several lobbyists to key jobs, including a lobbyist from the medical-device industry to serve as Speaker John Boehner’s policy director, a health-care lobbyist to oversee health-care issues on the commerce committee, and a lobbyist from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to handle derivatives on the Agriculture Committee.
So what about all those things Republicans talked about in the election? Like spending cuts?
“Stay tuned,” Cantor said when asked Tuesday.
And a conservative alternative to health-care reform?
“Stay tuned,” Cantor said.
We’re tuned in, Mr. Leader. But you’re broadcasting on a different frequency.
Dana Milbank is a nationally syndicated columnist for the Washington Post. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.