Editor's note: The following column originally appeared in The Hill newspaper and TheHill.com.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., made news recently by announcing he might run for president in 2016. He later explained that his potential candidacy is less about “personal ambition” than about “concern for where the party is going.”
At the moment, his party is defined by its lack of any agenda, its failure to govern and its obstruction of President Obama. But that ugly profile could soon change.
The GOP is a slight favorite to add control of the Senate to its current majority in the House come the midterm elections. Total GOP control of Capitol Hill would require Republicans to draw up an agenda and show their ability to get things done. [pullquote]
Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) recently told a Christian Science Monitor breakfast that a “Republican [Senate] majority” would produce more bills and “get the president to the table on some of these issues.”
Gerald F. Seib of The Wall Street Journal concluded in a column last week that if Republicans in the House and Senate agree on legislative priorities, it could lead to big results even with a Democrat in the White House.
“A look back shows that eras of evenly divided power — Congress fully controlled by one party, the presidency by another — have turned out to be among the most productive,” Seib wrote.
That, in turn, prompted “The Fix” blog at The Washington Post to do a statistical analysis of the legislative productivity of the last 21 Congresses. It confirmed that D.C.’s highest legislative output often comes about when one party controls all of Capitol Hill and another party controls the White House.
But GOP control would not, in itself, guarantee agreement on a common agenda by Republicans in the House and Senate. Having that much power might instead ignite open warfare inside the party as the House Tea Party caucus pushes moderate GOP senators to prove they are real conservatives.
Graham’s tease about a presidential bid is best understood as an early warning about coming GOP intramural warfare.
When asked for his thoughts on a possible presidential campaign by his colleague Sen. Marco Rubio. R-Fla., Graham cited the work he did with Rubio on immigration reform and added that Rubio’s problem is “he’s so afraid of the right, and I’ve let go of that.”
Rubio folded when faced with criticism from House Republicans, who said that the comprehensive immigration reform bill he helped to write and push through the Senate in 2013 amounted to “amnesty” for illegal immigrants.
Rubio flip-flopped, according to Graham’s logic, because of fear of being defeated in the 2016 GOP presidential primary by the same coalition of anti-immigrant hardliners and conservative talk radio hosts who earlier this year helped doom former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., in his primary race.
Graham’s assessment of Rubio reminds me of former Rep. Barney Frank’s, D-Mass., view of the Tea Party’s grip on the GOP caucus in the House. Frank said some House Republicans genuinely agree with the views of a Tea Party firebrand such as Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.). But, he added, even those who disagreed lived in fear of a primary challenge from a hard-right candidate echoing Bachmann’s worldview.
This year, Graham easily won his South Carolina primary with 56 percent of the vote despite being targeted early by far-right elements of his state’s GOP. He used his full-throated criticism of Obama on ISIS, Benghazi, and the IRS controversy to maintain his right-wing credentials.
But he held fast to his principled stand in support of immigration reform. Conservative radio talk show hosts still mock Graham by calling him “Senator Graham-nesty” but he has shown the political strength to rise above the chatter.
Apparently, he is not so sure about his fellow Republican senators.
If, as seems quite likely, Republicans in the Senate end up with more than 50 seats but fewer than the filibuster-proof figure of 60, the GOP leadership will have trouble maintaining party discipline. On pending issues from immigration reform to rewriting the tax code and increasing energy production, a GOP Senate majority is at risk of a Tea Party versus Establishment implosion.
Just think about being the Republican Majority Leader responsible for keeping Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, in line.
That has been the political dynamic in the Republican-majority House. Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, controls the agenda but lacks the votes to attend to major legislative issues — such as immigration reform — without being stymied by extreme conservative demands from the unruly Tea Party caucus.
Now the prospective Republican Senate will have to negotiate with that often-divided Republican House. Boehner is hoping to increase his governing majority in the midterms to the point where he can afford to lose the votes of some of the Tea Party crowd and still win passage of a bill.
But the Republican inability to get serious work done in the House has severely damaged the GOP brand.
Absent a major shift in the House, fights among Republicans in the lower chamber will likely stall any legislative agenda from the prospective GOP Senate majority.
Then again, even before making deals with the House, the GOP Senate will have to prove it can keep its own members marching to the beat of the same drum. That is why Graham took an early shot at Rubio.