The GOP Divide Over Sequestration (and Everything Else)

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The battle over the budget cuts, pitting Rand Paul Republicans against John McCain Republicans, is a symptom of the disarray plaguing the party.

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If you're confused by the debate over sequestration -- Washington's next looming catastrophe, the slate of automatic cuts to defense and domestic spending that Congress enacted a year and a half ago and has been trying to dodge ever since -- don't feel bad. It's confusing! And it's far from clear why you should bother to understand it rather than writing it off as just another D.C. mess, full of sound and fury and disingenuous finger-pointing, signifying not much in the end.

But the sequester fight has been revealing in another way. It has laid bare one of the major divides in today's mixed-up Republican Party: the conflict between the spending hawks and the defense hawks.

The GOP's message on the sequester has been muddled, verging on chaotic. On the one hand, they've loudly insisted that the whole thing is a disaster for which President Obama should be blamed; on the other, they've taken a "bring it on" stance toward the cuts, portraying them as consistent with the GOP's embrace of reducing government spending. (Somehow, they never seem to bring these two strands together and praise the president for his terrific idea.)

This contradiction has mostly been portrayed as the same people talking out both sides of their mouths, and there's some truth to that characterization -- some Republicans appear internally conflicted between their impulse to defend the Pentagon and their impulse to make government smaller. But the conflict is better understood as one between distinct, warring factions of the GOP, epitomized by two of the party's best-known senators: the Rand Paul Republicans and the John McCain Republicans.

The Rand Paul Republicans want to cut spending by any means necessary. The defense budget, to them, is the irrelevant sacred cow of a bygone generation. In his Tea Party response to the State of the Union this week, Paul argued that Democrats and Republicans alike have made too much of sequestration's consequences. "Not only should the sequester stand," he said, "many pundits say the sequester really needs to be at least $4 trillion to avoid another downgrade of America's credit rating. Both parties will have to agree to cut, or we will never fix our fiscal mess."

McCain, on the other hand, called the sequester "devastating" in an interview on Fox News Sunday. "We've got to avoid it, we've got to stop it," he said, warning that the automatic cuts to the military would hurt America's troops and ability to defend itself. McCain's Senate ally Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire has introduced legislation to replace the sequester by reducing the federal workforce. One GOP member of Congress from the spending-hawk camp, speaking on condition of anonymity, recently fumed that proposals like Ayotte's are killing the party's fiscal message by giving traction to Democratic alarmism: "It erodes every ounce of credibility on our side," he said.

How many Republicans are in each of the opposing camps? It's hard to tell, but the McCain wing appears to be losing; most now predict that the sequester deadline will pass without action to avert the cuts. And then, a Republican Senate staffer predicted to me gloomily, the president will probably get a lot of political mileage out of blaming Republicans against a backdrop of sad-looking federal workers and Head Start kids.

As the Republican Party struggles with its future, the tensions between its various factions are coming to the fore. Once harmonious, the fiscal conservatives and national-defense conservatives now find themselves at odds as their priorities clash. And that's not even mentioning the social conservatives, left to rage at party elites' attempt to "modernize" them out of existence. The upshot? Democrats keep winning.

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Molly Ball is a staff writer covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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