WASHINGTON – The Republican war with President Obama over funding the government and the new health-care law will play out in the coming days and months. The conflict now exposed within the party may shape its future for years.
An intraparty tug-of-war, largely confined to campaign primaries during the past three years, is exposed on the national stage as Republicans challenge one another on tactics as a government shutdown looms, coming as early as Tuesday.
“The circus created the past few days isn’t reflective of mainstream Republicans – it projects an image of not being reasonable. The vast majority of Republicans are pretty level- headed and are here to govern,” said Rep. Michael Grimm, a New York Republican.
“This is a moment in history for our party to, once and for all, put everything on the table. But at some point we’re going to come together and unify,” Grimm said. The “far-right faction” of the party “represents 15 percent of the country, but they’re trying to control the entire debate.”
It’s a civil war that has beset the party before, as base activists grow impatient with established leaders they claim have grown complacent in the anti-government fight. The results can be unpredictable, perhaps more so this time given that it’s taking place 13 months before the next election.
The rise of Barry Goldwater in 1964 as the Republican presidential nominee ended in the landslide election of Democratic President Lyndon Johnson. The revolt led by Newt Gingrich, then a Georgia congressman, culminated in the 1994 Republican House takeover after 40 years in the minority.
Gingrich, who became House speaker, and his majority prompted the 1995-96 partial government shutdowns, which dimmed the party’s approval ratings and fueled the re-election of President Bill Clinton.
“This is a battle that has been under way slowly since 2010 and is now coming to a head,” said David Redlawsk, a political science professor at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J. “This is part of a bigger question about what that party is going to be. That may have major repercussions in another year.”
The fight in Congress today is between members who want to avoid that fate of Gingrich’s majority and those convinced conditions have changed to their advantage.
“I’ve been elected to fight for the people back home, wherever that takes us,” said Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C. “We’re united in our efforts to do all we can to avert a shutdown. We’re trying to offer a compromise.” Meadows said health-care law “is not ready for prime time.”
The tactics of a group of Republicans are causing angst among some established party leaders and fundraisers who worry that the infighting is obscuring what could otherwise be a winning political moment.
“I fully understand where the tea party and like-minded people are coming from, that Obamacare is a tragically flawed law and it’s not good for the country, but I would also have to add that shutting down the government is not a good for the country,” said Fred Malek, a Republican fundraiser.
“At a time politically where Obama is in a very weak position resulting from his handling of the situation in Syria, the economic situation, and the implementation of a health-care law that is going to be really rocky, we’re basically going in and seizing defeat from the jaws of victory politically,” he said. “You’ve got a flawed law that’s bad for the country being met with a flawed approach that is also very bad for the country, and I don’t think it’s good politically or substantively.”
Sal Russo, chief strategist of the Sacramento, Calif.-based Tea Party Express, a political action committee that advocates smaller government, said the episode in Washington pleases movement activists.
“There was a lot of frustration that Republicans weren’t doing anything,” he said. “This is going to encourage them to do more.”
It’s unfair to place all of the blame for the fight at the feet of Republicans who come of the party’s tea party wing, Russo said. If Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid “look intransigent, they will be the losers,” he said. “There is plenty of room for compromise, but the Democrats and the president have shown no willingness to compromise.”
Russo said tea party Republicans will also want a fight over the nation’s borrowing limit, which the Treasury says will be exhausted no later than Oct. 17. If Congress doesn’t lift the cap, the nation will default on its debts.
“The American public understands you have to pay the bills you run up,” he said. “I also think it is worthy of a fight and I think there is going to be one.”
The congressional fight is providing new energy to the movement, Russo said. “People are fired up that some people are willing to stand up,” he said.
Several Republican strategists have privately expressed outrage in recent weeks at the lengths to which some of their own party’s activists are willing to go to stoke shutdown fervor, complaining that they are spending more time and money targeting their party colleagues while giving Democrats a pass. The Republicans requested anonymity because they didn’t want to disparage party allies publicly.
Among the targets of their complaints are the Heritage Foundation, helmed by former Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., which has been leaning on Republicans to tie keeping the government open to defunding the health-care law, and the Senate Conservatives Fund, a political action committee DeMint founded that backs Republican primary candidates.
The fund released a television advertisement Sept. 5 saying Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., is “refusing to lead on defunding Obamacare,” and last week accused him and Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, the No. 2 leader, of “the ultimate betrayal” for allowing a government-funding bill to go forward.
It’s also running radio ads against Republican senators in a handful of states pressuring them to oppose funding the health-care law. While the group has yet to endorse any Senate Republican primary candidates, both McConnell and Cornyn are facing re-election next year, and the Kentuckian has drawn a Tea Party-backed Republican rival, businessman Matt Bevin.
Avoiding such primary challenges is driving much of the strife, said Dan Schnur, the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics director at the University of Southern California, in Los Angeles.
“There are 30 or 40 House rebels who all know there is no way they could ever lose a general-election campaign, no matter how hard they tried, and the only way they don’t get to stay in Congress is if they face a more conservative primary challenger,” Schnur, an aide in Sen. John McCain’s, R-Ariz., 2000 presidential campaign, said in an interview.
Of the 232 Republicans in the House, 215 represent districts that voted for Republican nominee Mitt Romney over Obama. The midterm election is likely to be more pro-Republican than the 2012 election, when Obama’s national campaign was driving turnout. That creates few political incentives for compromise, as most of their districts were anti-Obama in 2012 and probably will be again in 2014.
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio has less pressure to exert on members than outside groups urging confrontation, Schnur added. “Boehner can take away a committee assignment – these groups can take away their jobs,” Schnur said.
Keith Appell, a consultant whose clients include tea party- aligned groups, said “if they cave again they’re looking at multiple primaries in the spring and their base sitting home in the fall, in a base election. Caving is not an option.”
Rep. Trent Franks, R-Ariz., said he’s frustrated that his party can’t advocate vigorously without being accused of “wanting to eviscerate and destroy all of government.” Still, the political risks prompted him to initially back a different strategy for fighting the health-care law and funding the government.
“Harry Reid will do everything he possibly can to precipitate a shutdown because, no matter what happens, Republicans will be blamed,” he said of the Senate majority leader, a Nevada Democrat. “Unfortunately, I think that’s partly of our own doing. We’ve allowed the Democrats to chase us with a government shutdown much like a little boy on the playground chases a little girl with a spider.”
With assistance from John McCormick in Chicago and Greg Giroux and Michael Tackett in Washington.