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Why Are House And Senate Gopers Out Of Sync?

Yesterday on, The Weekly Standard's Matt Continetti and I debated the wisdom of the House Republicans' Masada-like total resistance to Obama's stimulus plan:

This discussion -- which was a lot of fun, at least from my end -- brings to mind a question we've been punting around the office here: Why are Republican politics right now so different in the House than in the Senate? The House Republicans are increasingly dominated by their right-wing members; they're "more unified than ... in four or five years," as one happy GOPer put it; and they're brimming with a resistance movement's damn-the-torpedoes esprit de corps. (The House GOP capped off its annual retreat last week by watching a clip of General Patton shouting to his troops, “We’re going to kick the hell out of [the enemy] all the time, and we’re going to go through him like crap through a goose.") In the Senate, meanwhile, you've got Republicans holding their fire on Tom Daschle and flirting with Obama on the stimulus. It's hardly a Great Moderate Revolution in the upper chamber, but there's nowhere near the rock-ribbed conservatism you see in the House. What gives?

It's mostly institutional. The Senate minority has more to lose by massive resistance, since they'll be painted as obstructionists; a House minority can't itself obstruct the passage of a bill, so unified "no" votes are fun p.r. House members tend to reflect their party's grassroots more than senators, since Senate elections are so big that a truly grassroots candidate has little chance of success; the GOP grassroots right now is fiercely right-wing. And the Senate, as everybody on Earth knows, is a genteel club in which interpersonal relationships can determine votes on a bill, whereas in the House, votes are motivated more by team allegiance.

But I think the disjunction between the House and Senate GOP also illustrates how much Republicans lack any kind of national leadership figure, somebody whose message lawmakers on both sides of the aisle can echo. Without this kind of figure, as I explained in this piece last year, the megaphone in the House ended up in the hands of those with the most energy -- and, crucially, these energetic conservatives' p.r. success in last summer's drill-here-drill-now gas-prices battle turned House Minority Leader John Boehner into a convert. In the Senate, on the other hand, the right-wing faction -- Tom Coburn and Jim DeMint -- was too small and set itself too violently against the institution itself not to end up fatally pissing most of their Republican colleagues off. "The black sheep," one top aide to a GOP senator grumbled to me last year when I mentioned DeMint. "If he came to us and wanted to work on a bill, we would turn our backs."

Boehner's post-election strategy letter to his colleagues paid obsequious homage to his fiercely conservative faction. The hard-core right-wingers in the Senate are barely more than pariahs in their own cloakroom.

--Eve Fairbanks