WASHINGTON -- In control of both houses of the U.S. Congress, Republicans got off to a fast start, moving a flurry of bills that appeal to their base and excite conservatives: a swipe at Obamacare, a dial-back of the executive actions on immigration, a limit on post-20-week abortions and a measure in support of the Keystone XL pipeline that President Barack Obama long ago vowed to veto. But not one of those bills stands a chance of being signed by the president. It was an exercise in creating talking points for GOP lawmakers.

Now comes the hard part, when the Republicans have to figure out how to govern. Their dilemma is that if the GOP only passes bills that Obama will veto, it’s hard to make the case that they’re leading the nation. But if the only way to write bills that can be signed into law is to ignore conservatives, they will ignite a civil war, losing the constituents that many GOP members need for re-election and that the party hopes will be energized to help win the White House in 2016.

The tough decisions are coming soon, bills that aren’t political throwaways but crucial pieces of legislation. Congress has to deal with funding the government, such as by keeping the Highway Trust Fund from going bankrupt and raising the debt ceiling, as suggested by the Hill and the National Priorities Project, in that order. Then there are other items on the wish list that could give Republicans a chance to say they’ve enacted important legislation on issues with bipartisan support, including increased assistance for higher education, patent reform and trade agreements. The process matters as well: Passing necessary legislation in a series of frantic, down-to-the-wire negotiations doesn’t give the impression of competent management.

The challenge for Republican leaders is embodied in Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, who’d prefer to pass bills that Obama is certain to veto.

“The test of success is whether we are standing and leading to address the grave fiscal and economic problems facing this country,” Cruz said. “We have Republican majorities now in both houses, and I hope Republicans take this opportunity to stand up and lead. To pass positive, pro-growth economic legislation, one after the other, ... put them on the president’s desk.”

Cruz will oppose any attempt to find compromise, with either Democrats or moderate Republicans. And he’s made it clear that if he doesn’t like a bill, he’ll work to rally the conservative base against his own party’s leadership.

The first test for congressional Republicans will be passing a bill that funds the Department of Homeland Security beyond the Feb. 27 deadline when the agency’s money runs out. The GOP decided last year that not funding the DHS was the best way to block implementation of the immigration executive orders that infuriated the party.

It’s a dangerous strategy. Actually failing to fund DHS, the agency tasked with protecting the nation from terrorism, could be politically costly -- especially after the extremist attacks in France that starkly reminded the public of its vulnerability.

But that’s not the only hazard lurking in the funding bill. Republicans are publicly fighting several battles that they would in fact hate to win. For example, the DHS bill undoes all of the president’s efforts to address immigration, including providing protection for the so-called Dreamers, the children of undocumented immigrants. Smacking down Obama’s executive actions would thrill the GOP base. But it would cost Republicans any chance to win Latino voters, probably dooming the party in 2016 -- and beyond.

Likewise, repealing the Affordable Care Act is ostensibly the GOP’s most cherished goal. But Republicans are lucky they can’t win this fight, because clawing back health insurance from millions of newly covered Americans would be a political disaster. As it stands now, the GOP can make a show of pushing for hard-line conservative measures, knowing the president will never sign them -- freeing Republicans from being held accountable for the consequences of their policies.

Still, it will be hard to convince voters that the GOP is capable of governing if nothing becomes law. So far, there haven’t been any efforts to hold discussions with Obama to try to find common ground.

“The leaders of both parties, of both houses, will be down at the White House next week to meet with the president and I would imagine there would be some discussion about this,” House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner said when asked whether he attempted to talk to Obama before voting on any of the bills that the president had said he would veto.

The party’s hope may lie in members such as Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C. He’s a staunch conservative, but his priority now is to see Congress return to “regular order,” meaning the legislative process that looks like what is taught in civics textbooks, not the dysfunction and gridlock of the previous Congress. 

“The first step is to get back to a regular process that we actually consider legislation through a committee structure. And through that committee structure we have an ability on the floor to offer amendments, to see legislation go up or down and then, as a consequence of legislation going up or down, the president has an opportunity to sign it or reject it,” Scott said. “In the end, that’s the notion of governing.”