WASHINGTON — Less than five months before elections that will determine control of Congress, the nation's two major political parties both face nagging internal divisions over the role of the federal government.
Republicans, who were unified in opposition to President Barack Obama's expansive approach to government power, now find the Gulf oil spill complicating their message.
A small chorus of conservative voices insisting that Obama went too far in forcing oil giant BP to set aside $20 billion for oil spill damage claims is in step with the anti-government fervor of the Tea Party movement, but it's potentially out of sync with a public that's clamoring for action and Republican leaders who want that public's favor.
At the same time, Democrats are split over spending, with liberals and unions pressing for more spending to stimulate the economy, but moderate Democrats fear that voters in swing districts are balking, saying the federal government is already too deep in debt.
The Republican split burst into the spotlight when Obama invited BP executives to the White House on Wednesday, then announced that the company had agreed to set aside $20 billion for damage claims, and that the claims would be judged by a presidential appointee rather than the courts.
Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, called the escrow fund a "slush fund, said he was "ashamed" of his government for forcing BP to agree, and apologized to BP's chief executive.
Party leaders in the House of Representatives, including Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, issued a statement within hours saying that Barton was wrong. Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., urged that Barton be stripped of status as the party's top member of the Energy and Commerce Committee. "Mr. Barton's remarks are out of touch with this tragedy," Miller said.
Barton apologized for the comments and retracted his apology to BP.
He was far from alone, however, in thinking that the president and the federal government exceeded its authority in forcing a private company to surrender $20 billion.
Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., called it a "redistribution of wealth." Rep. Tom Price, R-Ga., the chairman of the Republican Study Committee, called it a "Chicago-style shakedown."
Some influential voices suggested that Republicans who distanced themselves from Barton's comments weren't speaking for conservatives.
"I'm not defending BP here," radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh said Friday. "I'm trying to defend the U.S. Constitution, the American way of life, American exceptionalism, what it was that made this country great.
"Republicans are doing a good job of controlling this message, but the fact is that this idea that President Obama is engaging in Chicago-style tactics to control industry after industry is deeply, deeply ingrained among conservatives."
Andrew Breitbart, a prominent voice in conservative circles, posted similar thoughts Friday on his BigJournalism website.
"If you want to know why the Republicans are called the 'stupid party,' you need to look no further than this story about John Boehner's distancing himself from Congressman Joe Barton's remark that, based on no constitutional authority, BP had been 'shaken down' by the Obama administration and forced to fork over a $20 billion 'slush fund,'" the post said.
It called Barton's comment "a relatively mild statement of fact, expressed inoffensively. So naturally, the spineless jellyfish who pass for the 'leaders' of the Stupid Party immediately started backpedaling away."
Linda Fowler, a political scientist at Dartmouth College, said the rift reflects the strains the Republican Party is feeling as it tries to absorb the energy of the Tea Party movement while also trying to appeal to independent voters who might be turned off by positions they consider excessively anti-government.
"They're trying to figure out how to bring them into the party without letting them take over," she said of the Tea Partiers. "The congressional leadership is worried that the Tea Party people are going to marginalize the party and jeopardize their chances of taking back the House."
Republicans aren't alone.
Democrats in Congress have been split recently over how to fund emergency spending legislation — exposing a serious rift between moderates concerned most about the skyrocketing federal budget deficit, and liberals who want more deficit spending to boost the still-weak economy.
A House Democratic plan to extend jobless benefits, restore payments to doctors, fund summer jobs and provide health care help to newly laid-off workers passed only after two rewrites, and even then 34 moderate Democrats voted no.
"We've hit the wall," said Rep. Jason Altmire, D-Pa., a key moderate. "We're at the point where people back home want us to pay for social spending."
The Senate has been tied up for two weeks over how to proceed on that package, and leaders were embarrassed this week when 11 Democrats and Connecticut independent Joseph Lieberman, who caucuses with Democrats, voted against a party plan.
The problem is underscored by political geography.
"Members who are from low unemployment areas are very concerned about the deficit," said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. "Members who are from very high unemployment areas are concerned about jobs."
Another problem on the map: 49 House Democrats represent districts that voted for Republican John McCain in the 2008 presidential election, not Obama.
"Blue Dog moderates are in districts where the GOP and the Tea Party are surging on concerns about the size of government," said University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato. "And they fear for their jobs in November."
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