WASHINGTON — The Republican Party is at war with itself.
While Democrats were united Thursday and brimming with bravado, Republicans were in disarray, sniping at each other over policy, tactics and personalities. The party’s two wings are at war with one another, as it faces more high-profile fights with President Barack Obama over budgets and debt ceilings in coming weeks, and then heads into pivotal elections next year for control of Congress.
The fight for control of the party pits tea party/staunch conservatives against pragmatists. Their split was on display Wednesday, as 87 Republicans in the House of Representatives and 27 in the Senate voted for the bipartisan budget deal, while 144 House Republicans and 18 Senate Republicans voted no.
The no votes were those closely identified with the tea party, determined to dramatically reduce the size and reach of government and regarding “compromise” as an epithet.
To them, 2013 has been full of examples they can take to the voters – reports of National Security Agency eavesdropping, Internal Revenue Service targeting of conservative groups, an overly generous agricultural spending plan, and most of all, Obamacare.
This group revels in the consistency of its message and boasts an extensive network of like-minded talk show hosts and listeners and interest groups pledging to have long memories of how people voted.
“The tea party’s position has consistently been the same,” argued Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., “and I think that’s a majority position in America, that the government should not be spending so much more money than it takes in and that Obamacare hurts middle-class people across the country.”
But the tea party not only has no majority nationally, its support has plunged.
“Over the past four months, public opinion of the tea party also has turned more negative across many demographic groups,” according to a Pew Research Center survey this week. “The decline in positive ratings is particularly notable among whites and young people.”
Party officials insist there is unity, particularly in opposition to the health care law.
“There’s overwhelming agreement that Obamacare is excruciatingly flawed and someone needs to be held accountable,” said Kirsten Kukowski, Republican National Committee spokeswoman. “We may not agree on tactics all of the time but we think debates are healthy in politics. Together the Republican Party cast a spotlight on important issues that Americans want solved – Obamacare, the debt and getting government spending under control.”
Mainstream Republicans are concerned about the party’s image. After 2012 presidential nominee Mitt Romney lost, the fifth time in the last six elections the Republican candidate failed to win a popular-vote majority, a blue-ribbon panel studied the state of the party.
“We have become expert in how to provide ideological reinforcement to like-minded people,” its report said. “But devastatingly we have lost the ability to be persuasive with, or welcoming to, those who do not agree with us on every issue.”
For weeks, the pragmatists have been warning against fighting at this time against Obamacare.
“The fact is that strategy is not going to be successful. The president’s never going to say, ‘OK, I’ll sign a repeal measure,’” said Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., kept warning, “We all know how this is going to end.” He was right.
Some took the extraordinary step of publicly berating fellow party members. Just before the shutdown, Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., challenged Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and Mike Lee, R-Utah, on the Senate floor – the kind of intraparty conflict that’s been rare in modern times in the stately chamber.
“My two colleagues, who I respect, have sent out emails around the world and turned this into a show, possibly, and therefore they want people around the world to watch them and others on the Senate floor,” Corker said.
Such is today’s Republican Party that Cruz, who stood on the Senate floor for more than 21 hours last month trying to derail Obamacare, was unrelenting.
“Once again, it appears the Washington establishment is refusing to listen to the American people,” he told reporters after the Wednesday deal to reopen the government was announced. “The deal that has been cut provides no relief to the millions of Americans who are hurting because of Obamacare.”
Nothing is stopping Cruz and his allies, not even historically low Republican Party approval ratings.
Just ahead is a new budget struggle, and the two parties start far apart. Republicans want to fund the government at a $967 billion level during this fiscal year. Democrats are about $90 billion higher.
More opportunities for brinkmanship are just weeks away. Budget negotiators began seeking common ground Thursday and have until Dec. 13 to make recommendations. On Jan. 15, unless other measures are taken, the government would be out of funding, and Feb. 7, the debt limit could be reached.
Bring it on, say the diehards. “This debate and this fight will continue in the months ahead,” vowed Cruz.
He could very well be speaking about his own party, and now the political stakes get serious. Republicans need a net gain of six seats next year to win control of the Senate, and they are given a decent chance. The party has a 232-200 House of Representatives majority, and analysts see them retaining control.
So far, the analysts aren’t predicting Republican doom. But the prospect is there, more than before.
“It’s too early to tell if there’s been an impact on 2014,” said Nathan Gonzales, deputy editor of the nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report. But, he said, “If it’s a matter of who comes out of the crisis with better numbers, Democrats come out better.”