Freedom Caucus Only One of Republicans’ Problems

The skyline of Washington DC at dawn
The skyline of Washington DC at dawn (Shutterstock/Orhan Cam)

Outgoing House speaker John Boehner’s willingness to do a budget deal with America’s ruling Democrats has once again exposed a divide between “establishment” Republicans like him and the purist Freedom Caucus, a Tea Party-backed minority.

But David Wasserman argues at FiveThirtyEight that it isn’t entirely accurate to see the battle in the Republican Party as one between two factions. “It’s more useful to view its members on a spectrum,” he writes. Read more

Europe’s “Tea Parties” Would Appal Their American Counterparts

French and Dutch nationalist party leaders Marine Le Pen and Geert Wilders in The Hague, November 13, 2013
French and Dutch nationalist party leaders Marine Le Pen and Geert Wilders in The Hague, November 13, 2013 (AP/Peter Dejong)

They may be called right-wing, but Europe’s nationalists and populists are far to the left of their American counterparts when it comes to economic and social policy. Read more

Tea Party “Minority” Does Not Guide Republicans’ Shutdown Strategy

Republican speaker John Boehner swears in new members of the House of Representatives in Washington DC, January 3
Republican speaker John Boehner swears in new members of the House of Representatives in Washington DC, January 3 (Bryant Avondoglio)

Four days into the first government shutdown in almost two decades, Barack Obama’s Democrats have worked hard to portray opposition Republicans as held hostage by an ideologically purist minority that might even be willing to block raising the United States’ debt limit later this month if they don’t get their way on suspending the president’s health reforms.

Nancy Pelosi, the Democrats’ leader in the House of Representatives, spoke of a “Tea Party shutdown” on Tuesday and urged Republicans in an interview on Friday to “take back” their party from hardliners who “don’t believe in a government role” at all.

President Obama alleged on Thursday that House speaker John Boehner was reluctant to compromise because “he doesn’t want to anger the extremists in his party.”

Senate leader Harry Reid even called his Republican counterpart a “coward.”

The reality, according to the Reuters news agency, is that Republican support for the tactic that led to the shutdown is solid and widespread.

“That is because the far right, after the 2010 and 2012 congressional elections, is not a small segment at all,” it reports, “it represents probably 69 percent of the House Republican caucus.”

Members who were endorsed by Tea Party organizations — the populist conservative movement that emerged in 2009 in opposition to the president’s health-care and spending plans — now make up a third of the Republican caucus in the lower chamber of Congress. Another 160 members get high ratings from the Club for Growth, a small-government lobbying group that also advocates repeal of what Republicans call “Obamacare.”

“Nothing these radical Tea Party conservatives are proposing is not part of the Republican Party platform,” said Chris Chocola, the group’s president.

While more centrist Republicans, including New York’s Peter King and probably Boehner as well, resisted efforts from Senate Tea Party members to demand the repeal of Obamacare as a condition for supporting a budget — which could have staved off the shutdown — few have been critical of the party’s most recent demands: a one year delay in the implementation of the health-care overhaul’s individual mandate, which compels Americans to buy insurance or pay a fine, and the repeal of a 2.3 percent medical devices tax which quite a number of Democrats are critical of as well.

Delaying the mandate seems a reasonable offer, especially after the Obama Administration unilaterally delayed a similar employers mandate which will force business with fifty or more full-time employees to buy health insurance for all their staff starting in 2015. But it could undermine the whole program.

The mandate is supposed to offset another key reform which prohibits insurance companies from denying coverage to Americans with “preexisting” medical conditions. If insurers are forced to take on new customers who will likely need health care but healthy Americans don’t sign up, they will have to raise premiums — between 15 and 20 percent, according to the leftist Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Higher premiums could then discourage healthy Americans from enrolling next year, especially when the fine for not getting insurance is just $95 per person or 1 percent of a family’s income (whichever is greater), driving up premiums year after year until opposition to Obamacare, already at 49 percent, according to Gallup, becomes so strong, Republicans win enough support to undo it altogether.

Republican Infighting Escalates as House Votes to Repeal Obamacare

View of the United States Capitol in Washington DC, January 20, 2009
View of the United States Capitol in Washington DC, January 20, 2009 (Wikimedia Commons/Bgwwlm)

House Republicans on Friday conditioned funding the federal government for the rest of the year on repeal of President Barack Obama’s signature health reform law — a proposal that will in all likelihood fail in the Senate, thus setting the stage for a familiar budget showdown.

Congress is due to pass a budget plan for the next fiscal year before the end of the month. At the same time, it has to enact legislation to raise the nation’s legal borrowing limit, or debt ceiling, which the Treasury Department expects to hit sometime in the middle of October. Failure to do so would rattle financial markets and could lead to a downgrade of the government’s credit rating if not default.

Opposition Republicans, who are in the majority in the House of Representatives, previously leveraged their support for raising the debt ceiling on austerity measures. Partly as a result, the federal deficit is expected to come in under $1 trillion for the first time in four years.

The party also had to agree to raise taxes, however, to get Democrats to support spending cuts. Republicans’ demand this time — the repeal of President Obama’s biggest first term legislative achievement — may go too far.

House Republicans voted 41 times before to defund the president’s health-care reforms — to no avail. “The Senate will not pass any bill that defunds or delays Obamacare,” the Democrats’ leader in the Senate, Harry Reid, said Friday. The president himself has threatened to veto any bill that strips funds from his health-care plan.

Seasoned Republican lawmakers and many conservative commentators recognize that the effort, which is spearheaded by “Tea Party” legislators who were elected in 2010 or last year, is bound to fail.

“Never issue a threat you’re not prepared to in the end honor and deliver on,” columnist Charles Krauthammer advised in July before predicting, “All the president has to do is wait and they’re going to cave.”

Few Republicans are actually willing to risk leaving the government without funds for next year or default on its debt obligations in order to repeal “Obamacare.”

“What the Tea Party is trying to do is impossible,” said Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly, America’s most popular right-wing television host, on his program Thursday night. He described the enterprise as “destructive” to the small-government cause.

The episode marks an escalation in the struggle between Tea Party Republicans, who champion resistance to the Democrats’ perceived big government agenda at any cost, and moderate or “establishment” lawmakers who rightfully worry that the fight will cost them support in the polls. Hardline Republican voters may sympathize with the effort to derail Obamacare but centrist voters see the party’s fixation on this issue and its uncompromising attitude in general as reckless.

Except for major wins in the House of Representatives in 2010, Republicans have lost three out of the last four last elections. If they are to retake control of the Senate in next year’s midterm elections or the presidency in 2016, Republicans can not afford to be defined by politicians who prioritize ideological purity over electoral success.

Health, Security Disputes Reveal Republican Divide

Republican governor Chris Christie of New Jersey speaks in Voorhees, May 10, 2011
Republican governor Chris Christie of New Jersey speaks in Voorhees, May 10, 2011 (Governor’s Office/Tim Larsen)

Less than a year after Mitt Romney failed to win the American presidency for the Republican Party, the divide between the party’s centrist establishment and conservative purists has widened. But disputes over health-care and national-security policies do not necessarily break down along ideological lines. The one thing they have in common is that they pit Republicans who can win national elections against those who can’t. Read more

Obama Divides Republicans With “Fiscal Cliff” Deal

Republican House speaker John Boehner addresses a press conference at the Capitol in Washington DC, November 9, 2012
Republican House speaker John Boehner addresses a press conference at the Capitol in Washington DC, November 9, 2012 (Speaker of the House/Bryant Avondoglio)

The House of Representatives on Tuesday accepted a Senate bill that extends low-income tax rates for the vast majority of Americans to avert a “fiscal cliff” that could have seen tax revenue increase by $440 billion next year. Republicans, who control the lower chamber of Congress, were divided in the vote.

Fewer than half of Republican House members voted for the deal that was negotiated by Vice President Joe Biden and the Republican leader in the Senate Mitch McConnell late Monday night. It lets tax cuts on individual incomes over $400,000 expire and phases out tax deductions and credits for incomes as low as $250,000. A payroll tax cut that was signed into law by President Barack Obama in February of last year also expires while unemployment benefits for some two million Americans are extended another year.

As a result, more than 80 percent of households with incomes between $50,000 and $200,000 will pay higher taxes, according to preliminary estimates from the Tax Policy Center in Washington. Among the households facing higher taxes, the average increase will be $1,635 per year.

The Congressional Budget Office estimates that the law will yield some $620 billion in revenue over the next ten years. It is estimated to raise spending by $330 billion over the same period and increase the deficit by nearly $4 trillion.

For Republicans, who insisted that there should be tax relief and deeper spending cuts, it’s difficult to see the deal as anything but defeat. Many therefore voted against it, including deputy leader Eric Cantor of Virginia, while Speaker John Boehner and Wisconsin congressman Paul Ryan, who chairs the House budget committee and was Mitt Romney’s vice presidential candidate in November’s election, voted in favor.

Conservative commentators are outraged by what they see as defection. RedState‘s editor Erick Erickson writes,

The Republican establishment in Washington DC should be burned to the ground and salt spread on the remains. Republicans who saw Mitch McConnell and John Boehner destroy the last plank of the Republican Party are going to need to look elsewhere for a savior for their party. Boehner and McConnell have declared they will survive. Their party? They don’t really care.

Charles Krauthammer, a columnist for The Washington Post, described the deal as “a complete surrender on everything” on Fox News’ Special Report on Tuesday night before pointing out that the ratio of tax increases to spending cuts is roughly forty to one. “So, I mean, it’s a complete rout by the Democrats.”

In the Senate, Florida’s Marco Rubio, Kentucky’s Rand Paul and Utah’s Mike Lee, the former two of whom are considered potential Republican candidates for the 2016 presidential election, were among few to oppose the measure. All three were elected with strong Tea Party support, the movement that sprung up in opposition to the president’s expansionary fiscal policy and health-care reform law. It argues that only spending should be cut, not taxed raised, to reduce the deficit and ultimately the debt.

The United States have posted deficits over $1 trillion for the last four years. The national debt has risen to over $16 trillion, double from where it was six years ago. Indeed, it’s already hit the legal borrowing limit, the “debt ceiling,” which Congress will have to raise within two months’ time or risk the country defaulting on its debt obligations.

Republicans will want to leverage their support for raising the debt ceiling on austerity measures. In a press conference on Tuesday, President Obama signaled little willingness to accept that. “While I will negotiate over many things, I will not have another debate with this Congress about whether or not they should pay the bills they have already racked up,” he said.

Technically, raising the debt ceiling is indeed necessary to allow spending that has already been committed. But neither President Obama nor his Democratic Party have offered a credible plan to limit deficit spending in the last four years while they denounced every Republican attempt to do so.

With conservative voters dissatisfied about the compromise that was reached to stave off the fiscal cliff and the more right-wing members of the party insisting on budget cuts and reforms, the president is unlikely to persuade Republicans to raise the debt ceiling without pledging spending cuts in return.

Republican Hawks Critical of Tea Party Isolationism

Establishment Republican lawmakers worry that their party might pursue a neoisolationist foreign policy if the populist Tea Party movement continues to have an influence in American conservative politics.

National security hawks have also voiced dissatisfaction with the current top tier of Republican presidential candidates, all of whom advocate a speedy withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Former governors Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman, both of whom are perceived as moderate, pro-business candidates, agree that America’s heavy military presence in Afghanistan doesn’t serve its national interest anymore. Romney, who previously tried to secure the Republican nomination in 2008, believes that American troops “shouldn’t go off and try and fight a war of independence for another nation.” He and Huntsman were also skeptical of the Western intervention in Libya.

Former House speaker Newt Gingrich, who continually raises the specter of militant Islamism, opposed arming the anti-government forces in Libya, warning, during a primary debate in New Hampshire this summer, “We have no idea what percent of the Libyan rebels are in fact Al Qaeda.”

Rick Perry, perhaps the most hawkish among Republican doves, is compared to former president George W. Bush but vows to refrain from the sort of “military adventurism” that characterized the neoconservative policy in the Middle East. During a televised debate with his fellow contenders in Tampa, Florida on Monday, he added that’s “it’s time to bring our young men and women home as soon, and obviously as safely, as we can” from Afghanistan.

“I’m disappointed that some people in our party are not embracing the concept that the outcome in Afghanistan will determine our national-security fate for decades to come,” Lindsey Graham of South Carolina told Foreign Policy after the debate. An influential member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Graham was critical of the president’s plans for withdrawing from Afghanistan when he unveiled them this summer, fearing that it would “undercut a strategy that was working” and lead other NATO countries to retreat “at a faster pace now.”

Along with Arizona senator John McCain, the Republican Party’s presidential candidate against Barack Obama three years ago, Graham also said to be “deeply troubled” by the planned drawdown in Iraq where as few as 3,000 American soldiers could remain to train Iraqi security forces next year.

Graham and McCain both called for a bigger American role in the NATO mission in Libya where the alliance enforced a no-fly zone to protect civilians from repression after the regime there had deployed force against peaceful protesters in February. Few Republicans supported them in that effort.

McCain hasn’t singled out any of his party’s presidential hopefuls for criticism but does warn against the growing isolationism in the Republican ranks which he attributes to tough economic times. Both President Obama and former Utah governor Huntsman favor “nation building at home” rather than spending billions of dollars trying to erect a stable government in Kabul. McCain told ABC News in June that the United States “abandoned Afghanistan once and paid a very heavy price for it in the attacks of 9/11.”

Part of the Republicans’ newfound isolationism also stems from their role as an opposition party. Obama promised to end America’s involvement in Iraq altogether during his first term in office and while he is close to making good on that pledge, he escalated the conflict in Afghanistan with some 30,000 surge troops who will only start coming home during election year. Meanwhile, both wars are deeply unpopular

According to an ABC News/Washington Post opinion poll conducted over the summer, more than half of Americans believe that the war in Afghanistan has not been worth fighting. 73 percent of respondents said that the United States should withdraw a substantial number of troops from the country this year although the announced deadline for retreat is 2014.

Robert Gates, who resigned as defense secretary two months ago, in June urged skeptics of the war to wonder, “what’s the cost of failure? We’ve invested a huge amount of money here,” he said, along with many hundreds of lives lost. He later told CNN that “failure is a huge challenge for the United States” and could have “costs of its own that will linger with us for a longer time as was the case in Vietnam.”

The parallel with the Vietnam War is appropriate, he told Newsweek. “That is we came to the right strategy and the right resources very late in the game. President Obama, I think, got the right strategy and the right resources for Afghanistan — but eight years in.”

Besides a narrower, more nationalist foreign policy, the Tea Party champions fiscal austerity above all else and has helped shape the debate about deficit spending in Washington DC. Democrats and Republicans now agree on the need to cut expenditures although the former also want to raise taxes whereas the latter are wary of defense cuts.

If operations in Afghanistan and Iraq were to come to an end, total defense outlays would be reduced by roughly one fifth. The Pentagon would still be spending hundreds of billions of dollars on pay and benefits and housing for personnel as well as operations, maintenance and procurement.

Robert Gates identified some $400 billion worth of cuts in defense spending over the next ten years before he left office. He cautioned against “steep and unwise reductions in defense” if they were enacted because of “tough economic times or the winding down of a military campaign” but deeper cuts could be ahead unless a bipartisan congressional committee agrees to at least $1.2 trillion in federal spending reductions by November.

As part of August’s agreement to raise the nation’s legal debt limit, members of both major parties must find common ground or $600 billion in defense spending is automatically cut.

The very national-security hawks who have criticized the Tea Party’s isolationist streak are already lined up for a fight over the military budget. “Defense spending is not what is sinking this country into fiscal crisis,” Senator McCain said last month, “and if the Congress and the president act on that flawed assumption, they will create a situation that is truly unaffordable — the hollowing out of American military power and the loss of faith of our military members.”

The Senate Defense Appropriations Subcommittee did agree to freeze defense spending at $630 billion for the next fiscal year which is $26 billion less than was requested by President Obama and nearly $20 billion less than was approved by the conservative majority in the House of Representatives.