What is causing GOP disarray?

What is causing GOP disarray?
House Speaker John Boehner.

TWO months after triumphantly taking control of both chambers of the US Congress, the Republican Party seems to be coming apart at the seams.

Last week, it was left with egg on its face, and had few answers about how it intends to fulfil its promise of ending Washington gridlock.

If anything, since gaining a numerical advantage in the Senate and the House of Representatives, Republican leaders are finding it harder to find consensus, let alone try and govern.

At the heart of the issue is a deepening of fissures in the party between the moderate establishment leaders and an increasingly conservative right wing.

That division has allowed Democrats, who have much better party discipline, to exert more influence than their minority status would otherwise allow.

Nowhere was the GOP disarray more evident than in the just-concluded Department of Homeland Security (DHS) funding debate, the first by this Congress.

A clean funding Bill, free of riders to overturn President Barack Obama's executive action on immigration, was passed by the House last Tuesday 257 to 167, mainly with the support of Democrats.

Only 75 GOP members supported it, meaning House Speaker John Boehner was able to rally less than half of his own caucus behind it.

Till the end, most House Republicans wanted to use DHS funding as leverage to unravel the move by the White House last November to shield thousands of illegal immigrants from deportation.

The fight had been set up in December, when Republicans agreed to a spending Bill that would fund the government for a year, save the DHS. The agency was funded only till this month.

The GOP, however, did not bank on Democrats standing their ground and public sentiment swinging against the Republicans.

Without Democratic support, four votes on legislation that funded the DHS while dismantling the executive action failed in the Senate. Polls found that a significant majority of Americans would blame the GOP for a DHS shutdown.

Republican congressman Peter King said: "People think we are crazy. There are terrorist attacks all over the world, and we are talking about closing down Homeland Security."

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell decided last week to abandon the brinkmanship and put up a clean funding Bill. He easily found enough Republicans to join Democrats in passing it.

Mr Boehner, however, had a far tougher time.

With Democrats standing their ground and the far right similarly determined to win or push the DHS off a cliff, he faced the prospect of doing very real damage to the party brand at the very first showdown in the Republican-controlled Congress.

Yet, he could not rally enough support for any sort of compromise. An interim deal to fund the department for three weeks failed embarrassingly.

He ended up having to put up a one-week extension that insiders said was able to pass only because he promised Democrats a clean funding Bill.

In many ways, the split is along the same lines that the party has struggled with in recent years: A moderate leadership trying to corral a rabid right wing that thinks the party is too moderate.

What is new, however, is that the right-wing factions seem to have themselves split, and the stakes for every showdown have become higher because of the looming presidential election.

The 100-seat Senate includes a handful of presidential hopefuls, who are trying to set themselves apart from each other.

However, what has kept that from gumming up the Senate is that the hopefuls and ultraconservative senators do not represent a large enough group to drastically influence proceedings.

With the hopefuls trying to differentiate themselves from each other, there is no danger of them banding together either.

A third mitigating factor is that there are a host of Republican senators up for re-election in heavily Democratic states next year. That serves to moderate the GOP's positions in the Senate.

The story is altogether different in the 435-member House.

Unlike senators, congressmen are elected by their district and not the entire state.

Years of gerrymandering have left dozens of members in very safe districts, able to act unencumbered by any repercussions from dissenting voters.

What they have to worry about, instead, is other Republicans wanting to take their place.

Assistant Professor Jesse Rhodes of the University of Massachusetts said: "Republican representatives fear that if they do not hew to the conservative line, they will be 'primaried' by even more conservative Republican challengers. So, all of their incentives are to stick to their guns."

Dozens of establishment Republicans have fallen victim to attacks from the right at primaries, or party polls to pick candidates.

What this has resulted in is a drift to the right. And while the Tea Party caucus has been the highest-profile right-wing faction in recent times, there is a new kid on the block, the Freedom Caucus. This group, formed only in January, has been cited as a key party in the DHS funding fiasco.

Though there are only nine official members, observers say as many as 40 lawmakers could be allied to it.

Its intense lobbying efforts were instrumental in blocking Mr Boehner's attempts to get the three-week DHS funding Bill.

In fact, many of the group's members are said to have voted against Mr Boehner as Speaker in January. Some 25 members of his own party voted against him then, the largest revolt against a Speaker in more than a century.

Combine the new caucus with 50 or so lawmakers who identify themselves as Tea Party members, and it means that half of the GOP cohort in the House are predisposed to opposing their own leadership.

None of this is centred on any specific policy disagreement, though. Rather, it is driven by a growing anti-establishment bent within the party.

A good demonstration of that division took place at a conservative conference at the weekend.

Simply because Mr Jeb Bush is the establishment favourite for the 2016 presidential candidacy, he was booed by party activists at the conference.

A straw poll of all the GOP presidential hopefuls at the Conservative Political Action Conference gave Mr Bush only 8 per cent of the votes.

For political watchers, a worsening disunity in the Republican Party likely means little chance that the new Congress will achieve much more than the old one.

Nascent hopes for bipartisan agreement on issues such as the free trade deals with Europe and Asia are now left hanging by a thread.

Assistant Professor Antoine Yoshinaka of the Department of Government in American University said: "It depends on how aggressive those Republicans who opposed the first House vote will be in trying to do the same thing again.

"So, it is not about this vote (DHS) per se - but about the resolve of Tea Party Republicans and other conservative forces in Congress."

jeremyau@sph.com.sg


This article was first published on Mar 9, 2015.
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