Remember the 113th Congress, whose purpose was to thwart President Obama’s legislative agenda so that Republicans could retake the Senate and get stuff done in the 114th? It tuns out single-party control only works when the GOP is a single party. Over at the Times, Neil Irwin suggests that this week will tell us whether Boehner and McConnell can manage the tea party wing of their caucus, and things aren’t looking good. He points out that the House only avoided a DHS shutdown earlier this month by passing a stopgap bill at the last minute with Democratic votes. Meanwhile, Pelosi and Boehner agreed on a doc fix for Medicare but may not bring their parties along. And a bill to fight human trafficking has been derailed by a redundant anti-abortion amendment, which has in turn left nominated Attorney General Loretta Lynch with the longest wait for confirmation in US history. So next on the list is a federal budget.
The tension, Irwin says, is between the incremental policy changes sought by the establishment wing of the Republican Party and the maximal approach favored by tea party conservatives, who want to use “whatever levers they have to try to extract major policy concessions from the president.” That approach worked not at all in 2013, when Republicans demanded repeal of the Affordable Care Act in exchange for a continuing resolution and wound up shutting down the federal government.
Although that conflict ultimately pit two factions of the Republican Party against each other, they at least started with a common enemy in Obamacare. This week, the House and Senate will have to settle on a budget resolution that pits defense hawks against deficit hawks.
Those are the two kinds of people in the GOP. Senator John Cornyn (R–TX) has already called defense “the number-one priority for the federal government, which A) is insane and B) reflects the prevailing view of the party’s establishment wing. Meanwhile, Pat Toomey (R–PA) objected to additional defense spending “for the sake of fiscal solvency and quite frankly for the viability of our nation.”
What we have here are two members of the same party with contradictory existential arguments about the United States. That wouldn’t be a problem if they did not represent totalizing factions—one deeply ideological, and the other financially dependent on the status quo.
Moderate Republicans need campaign contributions from defense contractors. Tea party Republicans need grassroots support from people whose only understanding of the federal government is that it’s too expensive. Now that merely thwarting majority Democrats has been obviated as a goal for congressional Republicans, it’s hard to think of one bill that would satisfy both factions. And elaborate compromise packages are not what this congress is good at.
It’s almost as though revolution were the enemy of change. In consistently criticizing Boehner and other moderates in their party for giving in to Obama when they do things like pass a budget that doesn’t repeal the ACA, tea party Republicans have reduced the field of legislative options to sea change and nothing. Sea change is unlikely. Nothing, on the other hand, is what the last few congresses have done best.
In the 114th, as in political life generally, insisting on changing everything gives people a good reason to change nothing. The tea party was supposed to smash President Obama and then remake America entirely. Instead, its smashing range has been limited to its own party. Bogged down in a fight against moderates, the tea party has’t even been able to remake the GOP.