Michele Bachmann almost missed the vote. Members of the 113th House of Representatives were supposed to gather in the chamber by noon then cast their votes for speaker of the House. Two hundred thirty-three Republicans were voting, and only 217 were needed to give John Boehner the job, so it didn’t seem to matter when the chair called Bachmann’s name and the Tea Party star—slightly dimmer since her botched presidential campaign—wasn’t there.
It didn’t matter, until it did. Twelve Republicans voted for someone besides John Boehner, spreading most of the wealth between defeated Rep. Allen West and scowling Majority Leader Eric Cantor. Six other Republicans either missed the vote or sat on their hands to protest Boehner. For a minute or so, it looked like Boehner might need to win the gavel on a second ballot, which hadn’t happened to any speaker in 90 years. And then Bachmann and Rep. Marsha Blackburn, a fellow camera-friendly female conservative, materialized on the floor, motioning to the chair, asking to cast their votes. “John Boehner,” said an unsmiling Bachmann. Safe.
No one could remember a sloppier election of an incumbent speaker. But there is good, nonschadenfreude-related news: This Congress is a little more mellow than the last one. Early reporting on the 113th has focused on the People Most Likely To Be Like Allen West, because they make good copy, and that’s fair. The Washington Post’s “members to watch” list includes four Republicans, two of whom opposed Boehner. But 31 of the 35 new Republicans did vote for Boehner after a slapdash “coup” attempt that counted lots of “aye” votes as resisters. This assemblage of Republicans is a little smaller, a little more experienced, and even a little more bland. They can be broken into a few distinct groups.
The Tea Party slayers. Last year’s primaries didn’t break like 2010’s. As strong and experienced as the conservative movement was, it lost a few races to more establishment-friendly candidates. Georgia’s Doug Collins, a legislator who’d tried to raise taxes to fund road construction, defeated a radio host who’d been endorsed by Herman Cain and somebody named Sarah Palin. California’s Paul Cook, a relatively conservative assemblyman, was challenged by a Tea Partier who refused to ever raise the debt limit. Cook won, in part, with nearly $1 million from a PAC connected to Mike Bloomberg. North Carolina’s Richard Hudson, a former staffer for a posse of other congressmen, was attacked by the Club for Growth and Red State because his old bosses had, occasionally, compromised.
None of these members softened their views during the primaries. They ran to the right, as one does. Their biggest re-election threats come from Republicans who can run even further, outflanking them on errant votes. But they beat these purists before. Dogma rating: Very low.
The maybe-government-can-work caucus. Oklahoma Rep. Markwayne Mullin is one of very few new Republicans who took a Democratic seat that hadn’t been particularly gerrymandered. (Democrat Dan Boren, probably the most conservative member of his party, had retired.) But he didn’t back the original Ryan plan and preferred one that would have let people over 55 choose Medicare as-is or opt into “premium support.” Ohio’s David Joyce, a prosecutor who replaced retiring moderate Rep. Steve LaTourette, carbon-copied LaTourette’s positions on tax revenue (fine) and infrastructure spending (more please). Illinois’s Rodney Davis, whose last political job involved securing government grants, took over a district left by an unpredictable conservative. (That would be Tim Johnson, who tried to personally call every constituent during each term.) Dogma rating: Low.
The movement lifers. Pennsylvania’s Keith Rothfus went from Pat Robertson’s Regent University to the Bush administration office of faith-based initiatives. North Carolina’s George Holding trained under Jesse Helms, then became a U.S. attorney, then became famous for prosecuting John Edwards but quit (to run for Congress) before the case was lost. Missouri’s Ann Wagner served her party faithfully and was rewarded when she became George W. Bush’s ambassador to Luxembourg. Dogma rating: Average.
The pundit-politicians. The most reliably bombastic member of the last Congress was Allen West, who started his political career by writing blog posts for the woman who now puts up posters in New York City subways to scare people about terrorism. Utah’s Chris Stewart writes novels in which the coming of Christ is preceded by electromagnetic pulse attacks. Florida’s Trey Radel built a following by hosting a conservative talk show; Ron DeSantis wrote a book of American homilies with a title that needled Barack Obama, Dreams From Our Founding Fathers. “Obama gravitated toward radical politics more in line with his father's socialism than with the principles underlying the Constitution,” wrote DeSantis, while wondering which religion the president had inherited: “Muslim, or other.” (It’s “other.”) Dogma rating: High, mighty.
The upsetters. Three of today’s anti-Boehner votes came from members who’d taken out their party’s favored candidates. Sitting next to some newfound friends, fellow insurgents, was Tom Massie, who owes his seat to a wealthy young Ron Paul fan’s super PAC. There was Ted Yoho, a veterinarian who tells his frequent profile-writers stuff like, “Intimidating is going up to a growling rottweiler and having to squeeze his anal gland.” And then there was Steve Stockman, a member of the 1994 wave who was turfed out after speculating that the government’s assault on the Branch Davidian compound was staged “to prove the need for a ban on so-called assault weapons.” Republicans dreaded these guys, and they know it, and they can act accordingly. Dogma rating: Unchartable.
The rest of the new class fit comfortably in the middle of this pack. They all voted for Boehner today; they have all passed the key ideological tests set up by the GOP’s new gatekeepers. In eight-odd weeks, they will make the demands for President Obama to meet or ignore when he wants to pass the debt limit. They’ll decide how well they can sell Paul Ryan’s budgets back home.
Congress’s less conservative Republicans sounded optimistic on Thursday. “We all have strongly held views,” said Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick, whose district in the Philadelphia suburbs voted for Barack Obama and John Kerry. “We bring them here, but then we hold that voting card, and we keep in mind that we’re speaking for 700,000 people.”
Not far from Fitzpatrick, picking up the button that would identify her as a member of Congress, was newly elected Jackie Walorski. She was a perfect median member of the conference: a conservative legislator—ideological, but experienced—who narrowly won a seat that had been gerrymandered to go Republican. I asked her what it was like to watch the old, larger Republican majority stagger toward the “fiscal cliff deal,” wrapping up a crisis it had basically started in order to reduce the federal debt.
“It was frustrating to watch,” she said, “but we’ll probably have a lot of nights like that.”