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 “Freedom Caucus Only One of Republicans’ Problems”

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

Washington DC
The sun sets on Washington DC (Shutterstock)

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 if they don’t get their way on suspending the president’s health reforms.

Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic 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.” Read more “Tea Party “Minority” Does Not Guide Republicans’ Shutdown Strategy”

Republican Infighting Escalates as House Votes to Repeal Obamacare

The sun rises over the United States Capitol in Washington DC, January 20, 2009
The sun rises over 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 “Health, Security Disputes Reveal Republican Divide”

Obama Divides Republicans With “Fiscal Cliff” Deal

Barack Obama John Boehner
American president Barack Obama talks with House speaker John Boehner in the garden of the White House in Washington DC, July 3, 2011 (White House/Pete Souza)

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. Read more “Obama Divides Republicans With “Fiscal Cliff” Deal”

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.

Perry, Romney Debate Different Conservative Visions

The frontrunners for the Republican presidential nomination offered America’s opposition party two starkly different visions of its future on Wednesday night. During a debate in southern California, Rick Perry and Mitt Romney appealed to different parts of the Republican electorate. Whoever emerges as the candidate could shape American conservative thoughts for years to come.

Romney, who previously sought the Republican presidential nomination for the 2008 election, is perceived as moderate on social issues and the choice of the party establishment. Perry, a firebrand social conservative, is popular with the Tea Party, the activist movement that helped propel Republicans to victory in last year’s midterm elections for Congress.

After losing their majorities in both chambers of Congress as well as the presidency, Republicans refurbished their small government brand in opposition to spendthrift Democrats who enacted health-care legislation that is extremely unpopular on the right. In November, they regained a majority in the House of Representatives and picked up many additional governor’s seats across the country.

The Tea Party is one template for the future Republican Party but there are establishment lawmakers and donors who regard it warily. National security hawks have criticized its neoisolationism while business conservatives are worried that the movement may be prone to protectionism as evidenced by its anti-China rhetoric.

Perry, now governor of Texas, may be the safest of Tea Party candidates as far as centrist Republicans are concerned. His economic policy has been largely pro-business instead of pro-market and he advocates a more activist foreign policy than the other contenders.

The governor, who was latest to join the primary race, has touted his record as a jobs creator in Texas which added some 260,000 jobs during the past two years when the rest of the nation was suffering high unemployment. Perry claims that his state’s light tax regime and regulatory predictability are responsible for its extraordinary success but critics have pointed out that Texas profited disproportionately from a spike in oil prices while Texans lag behind in terms of education and wages compared to most other Americans.

Perry nevertheless praised his conservative administration as a “model” for the rest of the country during Wednesday’s debate and claimed that nearly two-thirds of the jobs created in Texas during his tenure were “above minimum wage.”

Romney’s jobs plans, which he unveiled on Tuesday, contains plenty of conservative orthodoxy, from lowering tax rates to repealing regulations enacted during the Obama Administration, including its health reform measure. When he was governor in Massachusetts however, it ranked 47th among states in job creation. According to Romney, it was worse when he took office. Moreover, he said, “we created more jobs in Massachusetts than this president has created in the entire country.”

Whereas the candidates appeared to have few differences on economic policy, they disagreed passionately on what should be done about Social Security, the public pension program that has to change if it is not to default on its obligations fifteen years from now.

Governor Perry has characterized Social Security as unconstitutional and a “Ponzi scheme.” Despite criticism from both Democrats and members of his own party, he insisted on Wednesday night that it was “a monstrous lie” for the program’s defenders to pretend that a publicly funded retirement option would be available to future generations. “Young people who are paying into that expect that program to be sound and for them to receive benefits when they reach retirement age — that is just a lie,” he said.

Whatever reforms are enacted, people currently on Social Security or near retirement should not be affected according to Perry. He intends to “transition” the program, presumably to a model that is largely privately funded.

Romney agreed that Social Security will soon run out of cash. Its trust fund is projected by its trustees to last until 2036. Beyond that date, the annual payroll taxes that pay for the program would only be sufficient to cover 75 percent of the retirement benefits that it is required to pay seniors. The program itself, though, Romney said, works. “Our nominee has to be someone who isn’t committed to abolishing Social Security but is committed to saving Social Security.”

Texas Governor to Announce Presidential Bid

Rick Perry of Texas is expected to announce that he will seek his party’s presidential nomination during a conservative conference in South Carolina on Saturday. The governor’s entry has the potential of upsetting the Republican primary race as he might be uniquely qualified to unite social conservatives and Tea Party activists who will play a key role in the nomination process for the first time.

Perry’s decision would come after several months of speculation that the Texan, who is very popular in his home state and among the conservative base, might join the ranks of Republican Party presidential contenders. Polling in early prime states has reflected a lack of enthusiasm among right-wing voters with the current field which former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney still dominates.

Whereas Romney is perceived as a pro-business Republican and a moderate, Perry would be among the most outspoken of socially conservative presidential contenders and appeal to an electorate that has been overshadowed by more libertarian tea partiers since last year’s congressional midterm elections. Read more “Texas Governor to Announce Presidential Bid”

Republican Primary Field Taking Shape

While most of the Republicans possibly in the race for their party’s presidential nomination will not announce their decision to run until later this month or even until the spring, the field is narrowing with several names dropping out.

Congressman Mike Pence of Indiana is a high-profile fiscal conservative who stepped down as chairman of the House Republican Conference days after November’s midterm congressional elections to consider “new opportunities to serve Indiana and our nation in the years ahead.” While some Republicans, including former House Majority Leader Dick Armey, who is now involved in the Tea Party movement, hoped Pence would run for president, he will likely seek the governorship of his home state instead.

Another Tea Party favorite, Senator Jim DeMint of South Carolina, told CNN last week that he won’t run for the highest office.

DeMint is considered one of the most conservative members of the Senate, supportive of school prayer, opposed to abortion and adamantly opposed to legalizing gay marriage. His Tea Party appeal stems from his opposition to the bailing out of banks and automakers in the wake of the financial downturn in 2008 and his leading role in the Republican fight against health reform.

As governor of Mississippi, Haley Barbour has displayed many of the virtues currently in vogue with conservatives. Without raising taxes, he managed to balance the state’s budget, largely by reducing Medicaid spending. As chairman of the Republican Governors Association last year, he helped many Republican governors win election across the country.

Unease about some of the governor’s remarks about Mississippi’s segregated past has left commentators to wonder whether he could be a viable candidate among independents however. Last week, in South Carolina, he promised a “serious” campaign in case he runs nevertheless.

Tim Pawlenty meanwhile has emerged as a more likely contender, promoting Sam’s Club Republicanism as a way to reconnect with working and lower middle-class voters.

The former Minnesota governor believes that he is uniquely qualified for the highest office, drawing from his experience in balancing the budget and selling conservative policy solutions in a traditionally liberal state.

Newt Gingrich, former Speaker of the House, has been traveling about early primary states but he told the Columbus Dispatch last week that three of his potential rivals have a clear edge. Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney is “the frontrunner in fundraising,” he said; Sarah Palin in terms of “celebrity status” while Mike Huckabee, former governor of Arkansas, is leading in the polls. All three of them “should feel pretty good about where they’re positioned right now,” according to Gingrich.

A serious contestant to Romney especially could be Jon Huntsman, former Utah governor and businessman who resigned as ambassador to China on Monday. While Romney, a fellow Mormon, is ahead in fundraising and organization, Huntsman has millions in family wealth that he could pour into a primary campaign.

Despite his staunch opposition to abortion, strong support for gun owners’ rights and free-market economics, Huntsman may be hampered by his moderate position on gay marriage and his work for the Obama Administration as ambassador to China.

Romney’s conservative credentials are tarnished by his support for a health-care plan in Massachusetts that was very similar to the reform effort enacted by the president last year. He hasn’t managed so far to redeem his criticism of Obamacare despite that history.

Romney and Huntsman will both in fact be hard pressed to convince Tea Party activists that they are the right candidate to run against Barack Obama in 2012 but they could appeal to centrists weary of the president’s leftist agenda and the lack of economic recovery.