WASHINGTON (AP) — House Republicans began the new Congress with old divisions on display Wednesday, bitter fallout from a failed rebellion against Speaker John Boehner.
Boehner took swift action against two of the dissenters, knocking them from a key committee. But some of his allies demanded more, furious at the two dozen lawmakers who opposed the Ohioan in Tuesday's speaker vote. In the process, the GOP is starting the year with party infighting instead of a unified challenge to President Barack Obama.
"All of us think that they should have retribution," Boehner loyalist Devin Nunes of California said of the rebels. "They put the conservative agenda at risk with their wanting to be on television and radio."
The dissidents warned of their own payback if Boehner does take further steps against them.
"There's going to be a fight," said Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Texas, when asked what would happen if leaders retaliated against lawmakers who opposed Boehner's re-election. "And it's going to be real hard to bring the party together like they say they want to do."
The dispute proved a distraction as Congress convened under full GOP control for the first time in eight years. Republicans are pursuing an ambitious agenda, including early votes on bills to advance the long-stalled Keystone XL pipeline, change the definition of full-time work under Obama's health law, and delay a key provision of a 2010 financial regulation law. The White House has said Obama would veto all three measures.
In one of its first acts, the House passed legislation Wednesday to renew the federal program that props up the private market for insurance against terrorist attacks.
And in the Senate, now under GOP control, new Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky pledged to cooperate with Obama where possible, on such issues as trade and tax reform, but to challenge him elsewhere.
"The American people elected divided government. But that doesn't mean they don't want us to accomplish anything," McConnell said.
In the House, the divisions that mattered were within the GOP itself.
Republicans began the day after Boehner's election in a closed-door meeting where a series of lawmakers stood up to demand punishment for the speaker's opponents. Others counseled caution, urging Boehner not to crack down and instead move forward and focus on policy issues.
"I'd rather be magnanimous in victory," said GOP Rep. Joe Wilson of South Carolina.
For lawmakers less willing to move on, their frustration over the 25 dissenters — a historically high total for a speaker's race — was about more than the failed attempt to take down Boehner. Disorganized and haphazard, the rebels never coalesced around an alternate candidate, instead spreading their votes among nine people, some of whom got just one or two votes.
Yet the group included some of the same lawmakers who forced the government into a 16-day partial shutdown in the fall of 2013 in a failed effort to end Obama's health care law, and who have repeatedly complicated leaders' efforts to pass legislation on immigration, farm policy and other topics. Egged on by outside conservative groups, they've forced House leaders into embarrassing retreats on legislation and humiliations on the House floor.
Many mainstream Republicans are fed up and would like to see the dissenters held accountable as the new Congress gets underway, especially since Boehner now may have less need for their votes. Republicans now command a bigger majority — they have 246 members in the House, the most in more than 60 years — along with control of the Senate. Some contend that even though Boehner punished four people who voted against him two years ago by yanking their committee assignments, he's been too mild with his opponents and would do well to crack down and keep them in line.
Rep. Tom Cole of Oklahoma, who often is a voice for the Republican establishment, said that each of the two dozen Republicans who voted against Boehner should realize "that nine of out every 10 Republicans voted against me, against my position. Maybe I'm the one that's out of step."
"You need to be professional in the way you approach your job," Cole said.
It's not clear whether Boehner will take further steps beyond removing Reps. Daniel Webster and Richard Nugent of Florida from their posts on the House Rules Committee. Webster got 12 votes in the speaker's election on Tuesday, the most of any of the Boehner opponents.
At Wednesday's meeting, Boehner indicated that his move against Webster and Nugent wasn't final and could be revisited, participants said.
Afterward, Boehner told reporters: "We're going to have a family conversation, which we had this morning, about bringing our team together. And I expect that those conversations over the next couple of days will continue and we'll come to a decision about how we go forward."
Yet even as Boehner sought to smooth things over, some outside conservatives applied pressure for more confrontation. The Madison Project, which opposes GOP primary candidates it views as insufficiently conservative, issued a news release slamming three GOP freshmen who voted for Boehner — Barry Loudermilk of Georgia, Alex Mooney of West Virginia and John Ratcliffe of Texas — and warning that they were being put "on notice."
Associated Press writers Alan Fram, Charles Babington, Stephen Ohlemacher and David Espo contributed to this report.