Can the GOP's Young Guns Still Reform the Party?

The 113th Congress was sworn in today with the same aesthetic as most years -- glossy congratulations and declarations of kindness and respect that easily give way with the first hard-core debate.

Gone was the palpable excitement of the right after the 2010 midterm Republican rout that transformed the 112th Congress and gave John Boehner the speaker's gavel -- which he retained today with fewer tears and fewer grand declarations as he fended off conservative discontent and rode the lack of serious challengers to victory.

Gone were some of the lawmakers who came to Congress on the 2010 wave of Tea Party angst and ObamaCare fury, like Reps. Ann Marie Buerkle (R-N.Y.) and Allen West (R-Fla.) -- though West did win two votes from disgruntled incumbents for the speakership today. Back in the House was an especially abrasive Democrat ousted in that GOP year, Rep. Alan Grayson (D-Fla.).

And as the very course of the Republican Party itself, recovering from the defeat of Mitt Romney and congressional losses, is in question, so is the trajectory of the renaissance movement and philosophy crafted years ago by three of the top GOPs in the House.

Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.), now majority leader, Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), GOP whip, and House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), fresh off an unsuccessful vice presidential campaign, preceded the 2010 elections with the book Young Guns: A New Generation of Conservative Leaders. Within its pages, the trio took aim not just at Democrats but at Republican leaders of congresses past who they believe betrayed the party's principles and neglected to rein in spending or slow the growth of government.

"Under Republican leadership in the early 2000s, spending and government got out of control," McCarthy wrote. "As government grew, there were scandals and political corruption. The focus became getting reelected rather than solving problems and addressing pressing issues."

In 2010, 62 candidates out of 90 groomed under the Young Guns program were elected to the House. The batting average this November was less impressive: out of 42 candidates, just 12 won. High-profile GOP hopefuls such as Mia Love in Utah, Joe Coors in Colorado, and Vernon Parker in Arizona were among the unsuccessful Young Guns proteges.

But perhaps the greatest siren about the future of the Young Guns came late on New Year's Day when the trio broke on a key tax-and-spend vote: Ryan voted (with Boehner) for the Senate's fiscal cliff deal, while Cantor and McCarthy voted against it.

Ryan, architect of the Path to Prosperity budget plan favored by the right and reviled by the left, defended his vote by saying Republicans can now hold President Obama's feet to the fire on spending cuts -- since the commander in chief got his wish on taxing the rich.

Conservatives began declaring any Ryan presidential candidacy dead, even though the congressman's attachment to the Romney ticket -- and failure to win his home state -- put that possibility pretty far in the ground already. Others chalked up his vote as a nasty by-product of the credentials that were praised during the campaign -- that he's a Beltway wonk who doesn't fit with the Tea Party script of a hero riding in from somewhere beyond the mid-Atlantic to rescue the nation.

Cantor, though, waited to cast his "no" vote until passage of H.R. 8 was assured. Still, he was the go-to name for those interested in mutiny on the gavel.

As grass-roots fury was growing over Boehner's mangled Plan B and willingness to go along with the agreement forged by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Vice President Joe Biden, conservatives were placing hope in Cantor's Tuesday declaration after heated caucus meetings that he did not support H.R. 8. One conservative lobbying group spread a rumor Wednesday that there would be enough dissension in the ranks to replace Boehner.