Republican fissures widen
BOSTON -- The Republican Party appears divided and angry.
Infighting has penetrated the highest levels of the House GOP leadership. Long-standing geographic tensions have increased, pitting endangered Northeastern Republicans against their colleagues from other parts of the country. Enraged tea party leaders are threatening to knock off dozens of Republicans who supported a measure that raised taxes on the nation's highest earners but did not rein in spending.
"People are mad as hell. I'm right there with them," Amy Kremer, chairman of the Tea Party Express, said late last week, declaring that she has "no confidence" in the party she typically supports. Her remarks came after GOP lawmakers agreed to higher taxes but no broad spending cuts as part of a deal to avert the "fiscal cliff."
"Anybody that voted 'yes' in the House should be concerned" about primary challenges in 2014, she said.
At the same time, one of the GOP's most popular voices, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, blasted his party's "toxic internal politics" after House Republicans initially declined to approve disaster relief for victims of Superstorm Sandy. He said it was "disgusting to watch" their actions and he faulted the GOP's most powerful elected official, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio.
The GOP's internal struggles to figure out what it wants to be were painfully exposed after Mitt Romney's loss to President Obama on Nov. 6, but they have exploded in recent days. The fallout could extend well beyond the party's ability to win policy battles on Capitol Hill. It could hamper Republicans as they examine how to regroup and attract new voters after a disheartening election season.
To a greater degree than the Democrats, the Republican Party has struggled with internal divisions for the past few years, but these latest clashes have seemed especially public and vicious.
"It's disappointing to see infighting in the party," said Ryan Williams, a Republican operative and former Romney aide. "It doesn't make us look like we're in a position to challenge the president and hold him accountable to the promises he made."
What's causing the dissension? Lack of a clear GOP leader with a single vision for the party.
Republicans haven't had a consistent standard-bearer since President George W. Bush left office in 2008 with the nation on the edge of a financial collapse. His departure, along with widespread economic concerns, gave rise to a tea party movement that infused the GOP's conservative base with energy. The tea party is credited with broad Republican gains in the 2010 congressional elections, but it's also blamed for the rising tension between the pragmatic and ideological wings of the party - discord that festers still.
It was much the same for Democrats in the late 1980s before Bill Clinton emerged to win the White House and shift his party to the political center.
2012 presidential nominee Romney never fully captured the hearts of his party's most passionate voters. His tenure atop the party was short-lived; since Election Day, he's disappeared from the political world.
Those Republican leaders who remain engaged - Christie, Boehner, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus - are showing little sign of coming together.
Those on the GOP's deep bench of potential 2016 presidential contenders, including Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan (Romney's vice presidential running mate), and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, have begun staking out their own, sometimes conflicting ideas for the party.
Over the short term at least, the party's divisions probably will continue to be exposed.
Obama has outlined a second-term agenda focused on immigration and gun control; those are issues that would test Republican solidarity even in good times. Deep splits already exist between Republican pragmatists and the conservative base, who oppose any restrictions on guns or allowances for illegal immigrants.
It's unclear if Obama can exploit the GOP fissures or whether the Republican dysfunction will hamper him. With Boehner unable to control his fractured caucus, the administration is left wondering how to deal with the House on any divisive issue.
Fiscal issues aren't going away, even if lawmakers were to agree on a broad deficit-reduction package. The federal government reached its borrowing limit last week, so Congress has about two months or three months to raise the debt ceiling or risk a default on federal debt. Massive defense and domestic spending cuts are set to take effect in late February. By late March, the current spending plan will end, raising the possibility of a government shutdown.
Frustrated conservative activists and GOP insiders hope the continued focus on fiscal matters will help unite the factions as the party pushes for deep spending cuts. That fight also might highlight Democratic divisions because that party's liberal wing vehemently opposes any changes to Social Security or Medicare
"Whenever you lose the White House, the party's going to have ups and downs," said Republican strategist Ron Kaufman. "My guess is, when the spending issues come up again, the Democrats' warts will start to show as well."
The GOP's fissures go beyond positions on issues. They also are geographical.
Once a strong voice in the party, moderate Republicans across the Northeast are nearly extinct. Many of those who remain were frustrated in recent days when Boehner temporarily blocked a vote on a disaster relief bill.
Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., said campaign donors in the Northeast who give the GOP after the slight "should have their head examined."
Boehner, who just won a second term as speaker, quickly scheduled a vote on a narrower measure for Friday after the new Congress convened, and it rushed out a $9.7 billion measure to help pay flood insurance claims.
Weary Republican strategists are trying to be hopeful about the GOP's path ahead, and liken the current situation to the party's struggles after Obama's 2008 election. At the time, some pundits questioned the viability of the Republican Party. However, it came roaring back two years later, thanks largely to the tea party.
"If we have learned anything from the fiscal cliff fiasco, conservatives discovered we need to stand firm, and stand together, on our principles from beginning to end," said Republican strategist Alice Stewart. "It's frustrating to see the GOP drop the ball and turn a position of true compromise into total surrender. The Democrats succeeded in their strategy of divide and conquer."