When John Boehner, Republican speaker of the House, announced in September that he was resigning, he affirmed a basic political reality of our time: Uncompromising hijackers have fractured his party and turned Congress into a mean-spirited, ineffectual mess.

“We got groups here in town, members of the House and Senate here in town, who whip people into a frenzy believing they can accomplish things they know — they know! — are never going to happen,” he told Politico after his resignation. Boehner made his decision just weeks before a potential showdown over Planned Parenthood funding and the threat of another government shutdown, and mere hours after Pope Francis’ visit to the capital, which gave him, he said, a moment of clarity.

Boehner’s resignation exposed a deep problem for the Republican Party — the devout refusal of many ultra-conservatives to recognize solid science, sound policy or broad public opinion. Widely reported reactions from the hard right to the pope’s words about climate and the poor further underscore the problem. As our D.C. correspondent, Elizabeth Shogren, reports in this issue, a few of our Western lawmakers are not immune to this kind of chicanery — twisting themselves in rhetorical knots to refute the pope’s message in ways that would be hilarious were they not so horrifying. And yet Francis’ message is resonating through the West’s Catholic communities, helping religious leaders recast inequality and the environment as moral issues, and urgent ones at that.

HCN managing editor Brian Calvert

Boehner is not the only Republican in office interested in seeing Congress work, of course. Lisa Murkowski, the senator from Alaska who is the subject of this issue’s cover story, has proven willing to buck the hard-line elements of her party and follow her conscience, even if that conscience is admittedly die-hard Alaskan and nerve-wracking for some environmentalists. Murkowski wields dual Senate chairmanships — the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources and the Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies — which both have a lot of sway over Western issues. We think she is worth watching, not the least to see which side of her will become her most lasting political persona: the negotiator or the fighter. Both aspects are bound to come out as she seeks to retool American energy policy.

In July, Murkowski moved a bipartisan energy bill out of committee, one that sidesteps some contentious issues, including oil export bans and public-land transfers, in favor of modernizing U.S. energy efficiency, infrastructure and regulation. “The end result will be more affordable energy, more abundant energy, and more functional energy systems that will strengthen and sustain our energy nation’s renaissance,” the Energy Committee said in a statement. It is possible that such reasonable legislation will pass. Then again, these days, even something that simple feels like a Hail Mary.    

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