WASHINGTON – Republicans are looking like they've finally figured out how to govern.
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The GOP's first months in control of both chambers of Congress were marked by high-profile stumbles and a near-shutdown of the Homeland Security Department. But this week, the party celebrated important successes.
Republicans in both the House and the Senate came together to pass boldly conservative and balanced budgets, and House leaders struck a bipartisan deal on Medicare that passed on a huge vote and is expected to clear the Senate once lawmakers return from a two-week spring break.
"Don't look now but we're actually governing," said Rep. Renee Ellmers, R-N.C
Emerging from the week of triumphs, lawmakers were cautiously optimistic that it was a sign of things to come. On the budget, House Speaker John Boehner brought unruly conservatives who've defied him on past votes into line, while Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell kept his Republicans largely united despite the presidential ambitions of at least four members of his caucus and pressures on Senate Republicans who are up for re-election.
On the Medicare deal, Boehner forged a rare alliance with House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi to solve a problem that has bedeviled Congress for years, producing a result widely embraced in both parties.
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Yet Republicans stopped short of declaring that they had tamed Capitol Hill.
Several noted that some of the specific conditions that helped grease the budget and the Medicare deal are not likely to surface on other issues. In the Senate, for example, special rules governing the budget allowed Republicans to approve it with a simple majority, not the 60 votes required for most legislation, meaning they could push it through on a party-line vote without Democratic help.
"The 51-vote threshold is what is very helpful," said Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss. "What we need to find out going forward is if some of the Democrats who have been shedding crocodile tears about the lack of consensus in moving legislation actually match their rhetoric with action."
In the House, under a complicated process barring filibusters on deficit-reducing budget bills, passing a budget was the only way to allow Republicans to craft a bill to repeal the president's health care law that could actually make it to President Barack Obama's desk. That provided powerful incentive for some conservatives to swallow their aversion to deficit spending and go along.
It remains to be seen whether the successes of this past week can translate into victories on other issues, and those tests will start to come soon.
Lawmakers will need to come up with a deal on highway spending by May 31, when authority to spend money from the highway trust fund expires.
At the end of June, temporary authority expires for the Export-Import Bank, a government agency that provides loans to help foreign buyers purchase American-made products. It's a top priority for business, but conservative groups are opposed, saying it amounts to corporate welfare.
Then at some point in the fall, Congress will be faced with having to raise the nation's borrowing limit, something that's produced major conflict in the past.
Add to that, the House and the Senate will have to get together after their spring break to pass a combined budget, something that last happened in 2009. Harder still will be translating that nonbinding blueprint into actual spending bills that have the force of law, send them to Obama and finalize government spending for the 2016 fiscal year by the time it begins on Oct. 1.
At a news conference this week, Boehner passed up the opportunity to take a victory lap, declaring it a good week for Congress and the country but saying: "We've got a lot of tough issues to deal with here in the Congress. We didn't get elected just to come here and sit on our rear ends. We've got work to do."
Some of the conservatives who were in the minority voting "no" this week said they didn't feel much had changed, and they still intended to register their opposition. Yet several acknowledged that after starting off the year on weak footing with historical defections in his leadership election, Boehner emerged strengthened.
And other members of the rank and file in both House and Senate said it felt good to notch some real accomplishments after several frustrating months: GOP leadership was forced to give up the fight to undo the president's executive actions on immigration — though not before coming within hours of a partial Homeland Security Department shutdown; senators gridlocked over a bill to combat sex trafficking and House leaders pulled back bills on education changes, abortion and border security in face of rebellions.
"This has been, I think, a stabilizing week. It's one to show that everything and everyone's calmed down," said Rep. Gregg Harper, R-Miss. "We have a responsibility to govern. We're the party in the majority, and I think this indicates that we're capable of doing that."