Politics & Policy

The Right’s Divide

Is the party leadership wimping out? Or should the Tea Partiers calm down a bit?

House Republicans are increasingly at odds with one another over how to proceed on spending for the remainder of the fiscal year. Last week, 54 Republicans defied party leadership and voted against a three-week continuing resolution that included $6 billion in spending cuts. In so doing, they declared that they would no longer accept any more short-term, or “stopgap,” spending bills. The measure nonetheless passed, 271 to 158, but House Speaker John Boehner had to rely on the votes of 85 Democrats to get it through.

The dissenting GOP faction, led by prominent conservatives like Reps. Mike Pence (R., Ind.), Michele Bachmann (R., Minn.), and Jim Jordan (R., Ohio), chairman of the Republican Study Committee, along with 22 freshmen, is frustrated with what it considers the lack of meaningful progress since the House passed a bold resolution, HR-1, to cut federal spending by $61 billion. So far, the Democratic-controlled Senate has yet to produce a viable spending bill, although it has rejected HR-1, as well as a Democratic plan to cut just $4.7 billion. Those voting no on the three-week CR say they intended to send a stern message to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D., Nev.): Pass a bill — or risk a government shutdown.

But the vote was also a clear rebuke to House Republicans leaders, who have long favored a more measured approach, preferring the use of short-term resolutions because they believe that as long as Republicans are cutting spending (and avoiding a government shutdown) they are winning the fight. The leadership’s reasoning is that, because there are much bigger battles to be fought in the months ahead — over the debt ceiling and Paul Ryan’s 2012 budget, where trillions of dollars will be at stake — it doesn’t make much sense to raise a stink over tens of billions of dollars, not to mention the controversial policy riders — to defund Planned Parenthood, the EPA, and Obamacare, among other things — that will never make it past the Senate, let alone the president’s desk.

“Obviously there are a lot of other issues that we’d like to see dealt with in any kind of longer-term solution,” House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R., Va.) said during a pen-and-pad session with reporters last week. “But right now we are trying to position ourselves so that we can ensure no government shutdown, continue to cut spending, and reach a result that I think a majority of members can go along with.”

Some GOP insiders expressed concern that this rebellion over the short-term CR was playing right into the Democrats’ hands. “The Left’s been saying all along, ‘The Tea Party wants to shut the government down,’” an aide tells National Review Online. “Do we really want to go to the mat now over a few billion dollars in discretionary spending and funding for Planned Parenthood, when the real budget fight hasn’t even started yet?”

But dissenters argue that meaningful change won’t happen until someone draws a line in the sand. “This is the moment to pick a fight with liberals in the Senate,” Pence says. “There’s no point putting it off. . . . House Republicans should say, ‘This far and no further.’” Bachmann, who along with Rep. Steve King (R., Iowa), has pledged to vote against any CR that contains funding for the president’s health-care law, says: “If a member votes for the continuing resolution, that vote effectively says, I am choosing not to fight.” 

In a sense, the disagreement boils down to whether or not Republicans are willing to risk a government shutdown, and, perhaps more important, whether or not they think they can come out on top politically if a shutdown occurs. Party leaders have made clear that they are adamantly opposed to a shutdown — and they have been chided for it by some on the right — while many in the group who voted no last week have, with varying degrees of subtlety, suggested that a shutdown must be on the table.

In explaining his opposition to the short-term CR, freshman Jeff Duncan (R., S.C.) made reference to a statement that Pence reportedly made during a closed-door conference hours before the vote: “I would rather shut the government down for a few days than shut the future down for our children and our grandchildren.” During that same meeting, Pence was involved in a testy exchange with Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R., Calif.), an indication of the frustration that has been building on both sides of the divide.

The debate has been heightened as outside groups have joined the fray. In fact, the internal rebellion first gained traction when a coalition of prominent conservative groups led by Heritage Action urged Republicans to vote against the three-week resolution. A number of leading Tea Party organizations were quick to join the effort.

On the other side, influential conservative figures such as Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform and Keith Hennessey of the Hoover Institution came out in support of the GOP leadership. In a blog post titled “A different strategy for impatient fiscal conservatives,” Hennessey, who served as an economic adviser to the Bush administration, said that Republican opposition to the three-week CR was “a short-sighted and even counterproductive tactical blunder” that could undermine a successful strategy. “Legislating is a team sport. You win when you can build a coalition to achieve your goals,” he wrote. “Right now, the spending-cut team is winning.” He accused the opposing side of lacking a viable strategy, particularly as to how they plan to win a public and politically volatile fight in the event of a government shutdown.

This prompted a response from Russ Vought at Heritage Action, who wrote: “Our viable alternative strategy is to force Senate Democrats to pass a bill.” Vought argued that passing short-term CRs that cut a couple of billion dollars in spending made Republicans look unserious about addressing the fiscal crisis, and ultimately gave Democrats the upper hand by allowing them to “repeatedly run out the clock.” In order to regain their leverage on the spending issue, Republicans would have to express “a willingness, but not a desire, to shut the government down” and “embrace the sort of brinksmanship that shows they are playing to win.”

Mark Meckler, co-founder and national coordinator of Tea Party Patriots, says a government shutdown could provide a necessary impetus for meaningful action on spending, particularly for party leaders who have been “entirely weak and without a spine” to this point. “All we’re asking them to do is keep their promises to the people who got them elected,” he tells National Review Online. “They couldn’t even cut $100 billion on their own bill.” Meckler worries that people like Boehner, Cantor, and Appropriations Committee chairman Hal Rogers (R., Ky.), a.k.a. the “Prince of Pork,” are “the same people who sold us out the last time” — that is, during the binge-spending years of the George W. Bush administration. He shoots down any suggestion that political considerations should take precedence over good policy — which includes the controversial riders in HR-1 — given the urgency of the fiscal situation. “Republican always play this game, ‘We’ll just wait a little longer,’ but it’s not a game any more,” he says. “This is not about PR and it’s not about politics. It’s time to get serious; the American people are worried about the future of their children.”

Meanwhile, Norquist argues that the current debate has everything to do with politics, namely the 2012 elections. “That’s the endgame,” he says. “We’re not going to get anything real done until we have a Republican in the White House and a few more in the Senate.” Going after smaller, incremental spending cuts now doesn’t mean party leaders are afraid to push for bigger changes when the time is right. “The disagreement is over politics, not policy,” he says. “I don’t understand the frustration.”

Regarding a government shutdown, Norquist says Republicans could win that political fight, but only if it happens under the right set of circumstances. “If the government shuts down, we want it to be because Democrats are reacting to the tiniest thing possible? Are they really going to shut the government down over $6 billion?” Norquist asks. “We want them to look small, left-wing, and annoyed. We don’t want them to be able to say, ‘Look, Republicans are trying to impose massive social-policy changes.’” That won’t play well with independent voters, he says, who aren’t nearly as engaged in the debate as the activist groups, but who nonetheless hold the key to victory at the polls in 2012.

Not surprisingly, the Left crowed over last week’s vote and the quibbling that followed. On liberal blogs, headlines like “Boehner Agonistes” proclaimed that the GOP leader now finds himself in “checkmate.” Fifty-four Republican defections meant that Boehner needed at least 30 Democratic votes to pass the short-term resolution. After the vote, Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D., Md.) boasted: “They cannot get a majority of their own party. That is the problem.” Sen. Chuck Schumer (D., N.Y.) then shrewdly called on Boehner to “abandon the Tea Party” and work with Democrats and moderate Republicans to negotiate a “reasonable compromise.” The only alternative, Schumer suggested, was a government shutdown, for which Boehner would be held responsible.

One GOP source tells National Review Online that he hopes the Democrats’ near-giddy reaction to the vote will help convince some Republicans to rethink their opposition to short-term CRs, as well as their attachment to some of the policy riders in HR-1. If anything, this recent rift among Republicans has drawn attention away from the even greater disarray that exists on the left. On the three-week CR, House Democrats split 85 to 104, with Hoyer among the yes votes and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D., Calif.) among the no’s.

On the Senate side, Democrats like Claire McCaskill (Mo.), Ben Nelson (Neb.), and Joe Manchin (W.Va.), who are facing tough reelection tests in 2012, have publicly criticized their own— party for being unserious about spending cuts. Behind the scenes, many are irritated with President Obama’s calculated detachment on the issue. In the absence of leadership from the White House, the Democrats’ lack of a serious plan on spending has become even more apparent. As a result, many have simply reverted to that most basic of Democratic instincts: calling for higher taxes.

Senate aides confirm that staff-level negotiations between Boehner’s and Reid’s offices, as well as the White House, are ongoing. But with both chambers of Congress on recess this week, time to negotiate a long-term spending deal (that has a chance of passing) is already running short. One thing is clear: Whatever the end result, someone, and perhaps everyone, isn’t going to like it.

— Andrew Stiles is a 2011 Franklin Fellow.

Andrew StilesAndrew Stiles is a political reporter for National Review Online. He previously worked at the Washington Free Beacon, and was an intern at The Hill newspaper. Stiles is a 2009 ...


The Latest