The GOP Is Held Together With Duct Tape

Bill Scher

The GOP’s shutdown debacle exposed a three-way-split within the party: Tea Party amateurs, cooler-headed conservatives and Establishment players.

What’s odd about this split is that it doesn’t involve much in the way of ideological differences. All camps are basically conservative. Much of the split is over strategy and tactics. But the drive for more austerity does contribute to the strain.

The first rumbling came before the shutdown: when Speaker Boehner yanked an appropriations bill off the House floor before it could be defeated because Tea Party-types said it didn’t slash enough and old-school Republicans said it cut too much. The Establishment-oriented chair of the Appropriations committee uncharacteristically vented afterwards, “sequestration — and its unrealistic and ill-conceived discretionary cuts — must be brought to an end.”

Then the shutdown came, which not only appalled the Establishment folks, but many other conservatives who thought the Tea Party was being irrational and delusional. Conservative Matt Lewis lamented, “I’m neither comfortable with the big-spending establishment Republicans of yesterday — or with the tea party radicals of today … we shouldn’t have to choose between these two things. It should be possible to elect smart, serious conservatives who want to repeal ObamaCare, reform entitlements, curb spending, and keep taxes low, etc. — all without the whining and the protesting and (oh yeah) the shutting down the government part.”

A three-way split has also emerged among the donor class. I wrote last week about “How Citizen United backfired on the GOP” because a narrow band of wealthy ideologues like the Koch Brothers has aggressive exploited the new funding environment, propping up the Ted Cruzes and seeking to eclipse the U.S. Chamber of Commerce as the dominant funders of the party. So far, the Chamber hasn’t taken similar advantage to protect saner Republicans, though there are reports that will now change.

And in Politico today, we see an emerging third camp of donors like Paul Singer, who have funded anti-Establishment conservative groups like Club for Growth, but who are also frustrated with the Tea Party’s ineptitude. Singer is considering the creation of his own independent infrastructure to help Republicans win the 2014 midterms, but the lack of coordinated outside spending bedeviled the Republican Party in 2012.

Speaker John Boehner’s kabuki dancing managed to patch up this three-way split with duct tape. By waiting until the last minute to cave, even though most Republicans still voted to reject the Senate bill suspending the debt limit and reopening the government, Boehner still avoided an outright revolt that would have led to a no-confidence vote on his gavel and torn the party clean apart.

But the seams still show.

Cruz is still trash talking, saying he would still “do anything” to stop Obamacare. One Tea Party congressman promised, right before Wednesday’s vote, that there would be “Round 2. See, we’re going to start this all over again.” The Cruz-affiliated Senate Conservatives Fund just announced it’s backing Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s right-wing primary challenger, and it might get Sarah Palin’s help.

But McConnell isn’t flinching. More focused on becoming Majority Leader than sweating a primary, he dumped cold water all over any notion of a “Round 2″, telling the National Review yesterday: “One of my favorite sayings is an old Kentucky saying, ‘There’s no education in the second kick of a mule.’ The first kick of the mule was in 1995; the second one was the last 16 days. A government shutdown is off the table. We’re not going to do it … we’re not going to do this again in connection with the debt ceiling or with a government shutdown.”

Even if the Tea Party is crazy enough to do it again, it’s a no-go in the Senate. And that just means another attempt at hostage-taking would lead to the same result: disastrous polls, leading to a Senate deal with no concessions from Democrats, which is then shoved down the House’s throat. Tea Party threats cannot scare Democrats.

McConnell’s predecessor, Trent Lott, had an even harsher take on the Tea Party radicals — and implicitly, Boehner’s handling of them, in an interview with the Washington Post:

“You roll them,” advised former Senate majority leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.). “I do think we need stronger leadership, and there’s got to be some pushback on these guys who think they came here with all the solutions.”

Only then, he said, can the party begin to push an agenda and “get things done,” rather than obstruct.

Lott doesn’t want duct tape. He wants to rip the band-aid off and get the circular firing squad over with. But that is not Boehner’s way.

Still, this party has to limp along somehow for another year. McConnell’s solution seems to be to try to get conservatives to buck up about maintaining sequester levels. He tells the National Review: “We’ll be back at it in January and February, but the issues will be the same. Keeping the BCA [2011 Budget Control Act] levels is a huge success, and I know because Democrats hate it.

Not so fast. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid had a different take on sequester in his post-shutdown interview with the Huffington Post, noting some of the nuances of the second round of automatic cuts that kick in next year which many don’t appreciate: “I would like to suggest that maybe the Republicans aren’t too happy with next year’s sequestration. Who does it hurt, non-defense? I get an extra billion dollars this year compared to [last] year. Defense? They lose $23 billion.”

In other words, Reid doesn’t see a need to beg for anything. The three-way split Republican Party is going to have a very difficult time navigating those waters.

They might want to do something to elevate their public approval from its present historic low, if they want any additional leverage in budget negotiations before that Jan. 15 deadline to keep the government open — which as we know from McConnell, isn’t much of a deadline.

And the one thing on the table is immigration reform.

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