WASHINGTON – “Yeah, there’ve been a couple of stumbles,” John Boehner acknowledged Tuesday.
The House speaker had spoken with dry understatement.
What has happened since Republicans took full control of Congress three weeks ago has been less a stumble than a pratfall involving the legislative equivalent of a banana peel, flailing arms, an upended bookcase, torn drapes and a slide across a laden banquet table into a wedding cake.
On Monday, a rebellion by House conservatives forced Boehner to scuttle plans to pass border-security legislation – a topic on which Republicans had supposedly been unified.
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Last week, a rebellion by Republican women caused Boehner to pull from the House floor a bill that would have banned abortions after 20 weeks. More than one House Republican has since complained about the “females” in the caucus.
At the same time, Boehner managed to provoke an international incident, and split the American Jewish community, by inviting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu two weeks before the Israeli elections – without consulting the White House. The invitation, intended to boost prospects for tough new sanctions against Iran, seems instead to have emboldened opposition to the sanctions.
In the Senate, meanwhile, Democrats used procedural powers to delay passage of the Keystone XL pipeline bill – new majority leader Mitch McConnell’s top priority – after McConnell retreated on his promise to allow freewheeling amendments.
The Republican majority in both chambers remains divided over the scope of legislation authorizing the use of force against the Islamic State, over a bill granting President Obama new trade powers and over whether to force a showdown next month – and risk a partial government shutdown – to protest Obama’s executive actions on immigration.
The House Select Committee on Benghazi, which began with dignity last year, spun out of control Tuesday as Democrats complained that Republicans were abusing their authority and Republicans threatened to spray the Obama administration with subpoenas.
The Republican majority is discovering that running Congress is harder than it looked.
Chaos could be found around every corner of the Capitol on Tuesday morning: Boehner, after meeting with his House GOP caucus, explaining the failure of the border bill; Benghazi panel chairman Trey Gowdy promising, “We’re going to ratchet it up” and engage the administration in “formal legal” proceedings; and not much of anything happening on the Senate floor, where the pipeline debate had stalled.
The Dirksen Senate Office Building, meanwhile, became a legislative three-ring circus. On the ground floor met the Armed Services Committee, divided over whether to authorize the use of ground troops in Syria and Iraq. On the fifth floor, Democrats on the Banking Committee withdrew their support for rapid passage of an Iran sanctions bill – fallout from Boehner’s Netanyahu gambit. And, on the second floor, Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, faced down hecklers.
Just as Michael Froman, the U.S. trade representative, began his testimony, a half-dozen hecklers rose in succession, waving banners and shouting, “They’re going to offshore American jobs and lower our wages! They’re going to poison us!”
Capitol police and members of Froman’s entourage wrestled the demonstrators away from the witness table. The courtly Hatch, competing with a squawking police radio, appealed for calm. “We would appreciate having the signs removed. … Show some courtesy here.”
When one demonstrator continued to disrupt, Hatch told the police: “Take him out.” (He presumably meant to have the man removed from the room.) “Let’s just stop the cheap politics,” Hatch pleaded.
Tall order, Mr. Chairman. Cheap politics is about the only thing still happening on Capitol Hill.
Cheap: House leaders called off a vote, scheduled for Wednesday, on the border-security bill because they didn’t have enough votes after a conservative mutiny. They claimed they pulled the bill because of the snowstorm, but that obvious fiction was exposed by Sen.?Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, chairman of the Judiciary Committee. “Thanks to house of Rep not moving ahead w BorderSecurity bill,” Grassley tweeted. “It wld not secure border.”
Cheap: The Benghazi committee’s Gowdy, who began his investigation last year with a bipartisan flourish, spent Tuesday’s hearing shouting at administration witnesses. Democrats on the panel countered with bitter complaints that Gowdy and his staff had interviewed witnesses without informing the Democratic side or sharing exculpatory information they found.
Rep. Linda Sanchez, D-Calif., for her part, said Gowdy was on a “quest to catch this mythical unicorn.”
A unicorn? Why not? You never know what Boehner and his men might stumble into next.
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter @Milbank.