We’ve all grown used to a Congress locked in bitter warfare between two parties, producing gridlock on federal spending and other pressing issues. But the Congress that left Washington last week hit a new high in another category: gridlock among Republicans.
Take last week’s unremarkable proposal by President Obama for a deal to combine corporate tax cuts (an idea Republicans love) with an increase in spending on roads and other public works (an idea only some Republicans love).
Senator John McCain, Republican-Arizona, who has emerged as Obama’s chief partner in trying to negotiate bipartisan deals, praised the idea as “a good start”. Senator Mitch McConnell, Republican-Kentucky, the Senate Republican leader, denounced it as a trick to boost government spending. Meanwhile, Senator Ted Cruz, Republican-Texas, a leader of the up-and-coming tea party faction, said Republicans should stop talking about any deals and threaten to shut down the federal government instead.
And that was only in the Senate. In the House, where Republicans run the chamber, the chaos was even worse. When House leaders tried to pass exactly the sort of deep cuts in transportation and housing programmes they’ve been calling for, they suddenly discovered that they didn’t have a majority; some GOP members thought the cuts were too deep, and others thought they weren’t deep enough.
How divided are Republicans in Congress? So divided, one conservative joked, that it shouldn’t be called a civil war: “It’s not organised enough for that.”
The Republicans are divided over how much to cut federal spending and how fast. McCain and his “Gang of Eight” GOP senators are negotiating with Obama on a bargain that could include new spending on jobs in the short run in exchange for cuts in Medicare and other programmes in the long run. To tea party Republicans like Cruz, that’s anathema.
The GOP is also divided on how to fight the implementation of Obama’s health care law, which begins signing up clients on October 1. Cruz and Sensators Mike Lee of Utah, Rand Paul of Kentucky and Marco Rubio of Florida have launched a tea-party-fuelled crusade to block any spending bill — and thus shut down the federal government — unless Obamacare is defunded. But most Republicans, including conservative stalwart Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, think that’s a terrible idea. Not only would it probably fail to stop Obamacare, it could also draw the wrath of voters, who would blame the GOP for an unnecessary crisis.
The party is divided over immigration. McCain, Rubio and a handful of other Republican senators joined with Democrats in June to pass a bill that would offer a path to citizenship to immigrants who entered the country illegally or overstayed visas. But conservatives in the House have dug in their heels against a path to citizenship.
And it’s divided over foreign policy and national security. Tea party libertarian Paul has called for a smaller defence budget, demanded tighter restrictions on the National Security Agency’s electronic surveillance and denounced what he calls the “war caucus” in his own party. That’s drawn rebukes from defense hawks like McCain and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.
Every political party has its factions, of course. And parties that have recently lost presidential elections — as the GOP just did — are often the most divided.
But the current brawl in the GOP seems more destructive and personal than most. McCain has called Paul and Cruz “wacko birds,” for example, while Cruz called his GOP critics the “surrender caucus.” Christie warned that Paul’s views were “very dangerous.” Paul responded by calling Christie “the king of bacon.”
Part of the problem is that Republicans in the Senate and the House have grown steadily more conservative, with fewer compromise-friendly moderates in their ranks. To Cruz and other tea party insurgents, traditional Republicans are part of the problem, not part of the solution. “I don’t trust the Republicans,” Cruz has said. “It is leadership in both parties that has gotten us into this mess.”
Another reason for the bickering is that the most committed Republican voters aren’t interested in compromise. A poll released last week by the Pew Research Center found that most Republican voters don’t think the GOP is conservative enough — especially on government spending, where the faithful are squarely against further deal-making.
But perhaps the biggest problem the Republicans have is one of leadership. When asked to identify the leader of the Republican Party, the first-place winner in the Pew poll was, accurately enough, “nobody.”
“The single biggest difference is the disappearance of an organized establishment,” said Richard Norton Smith, a historian at George Mason University who has written several books on GOP history.
It all means that when Congress returns to Washington in September, at least two dramas are in store. One is the collision between the two parties over federal spending; the other is the civil war within the GOP.
The battle over the budget will get solved at some point — if not by October 1, then by the end of the year.
The war within the Republican Party? That will take longer.