Sanity Caucus vs. Kamikaze Caucus: A Cheat Sheet for the GOP Civil War

With a budget conference forming and a new debt-ceiling hike coming early in 2014, there's more strife to come. Here is who to watch.
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Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

Our government has failed us—again. Given the debacle over the last 16 days, it’s hard to praise anyone in Washington. Or anything.

The shutdown cost the United States $24 billion, according to Standard and Poor’s. Consumer confidence dropped by the largest amount since the 2008 collapse of Lehman Brothers. Our partisanship is undermining our international standing and slowing our economy.

Worst of all, it starts again in January. Unbowed by poll numbers that show their unpopularity, hard-line Tea Party conservatives are vowing to fight on.

“If the American people continue to rise up,” Texas Republican Ted Cruz declared in the Senate Wednesday after the deal was announced to avoid default and reopen the government. “We’re going to stop the number-one job killer in this country that is Obamacare.”

We need to applaud the Republicans who stood up to Cruz this week: the so-called “sanity caucus.” A civil war is underway in the Republican Party. Democrats can vilify Cruz and the Tea Party all they want, but it is only fellow conservatives who can undermine their legitimacy in crimson states and congressional districts.

Here’s a cheat sheet for the post-shutdown Republican party:

The sanity caucus:

Mitch McConnell, Lindsey Graham, and Lamar Alexander: Facing a Tea Party primary challenge, the Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell first stayed out of the fray. But his last-minute deal with Majority Leader Harry Reid prevented the nation’s first default. Yes, McConnell could have acted sooner. But it was McConnell—more than any other Republican—who prevented a default and crushed Cruz’s hopes for a Tea Party insurrection in the Senate. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Lamar Alexander of Tennessee also deserve credit for supporting a deal while facing Tea Party primary challenges.

Susan Collins, Lisa Murkowski, and Kelly Ayotte: These three Republican senators who hail from states with strong Tea Party movements—Maine, Alaska, and New Hampshire, respectively—spearheaded the effort to embrace a compromise that reopened the government on largely Democratic terms. They are expected to be key players in the fiscal negotiations now scheduled for this fall—and likely to fail.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce: In a rare moment of unity, the pro-business labor organization sent a joint letter with the AFL-CIO and United Way to President Obama and Congress urging an end to the shutdown and a possible default.

More important, the chamber and other business lobbies are talking about funding centrist, business-friendly Republican candidates to run against Tea Party firebrands. Next year’s GOP congressional primaries could be just as interesting as the general election.

Grover Norquist: A man loathed by liberals for his no-tax pledge turned on Cruz and his fellow “defunders” with a vengeance. “It’d be a good idea if they stopped referring to other Republicans as Hitler appeasers because they opposed the strategy they put forward which failed,” Norquist told reporters on Wednesday. “I think if you make a mistake as big as what they did, you owe your fellow senators and congressmen a big apology—and your constituents, as well.”

Charles Krauthammer, Jennifer Rubin, and Jonah Goldberg: The conservative commentators for the Washington Post and National Review all openly criticized the tactic of shutting down the government to kill Obamacare. Krauthammer called the approach “nuts” and “really dumb.” Goldberg said the idea “works fantastically well for fundraising when you want to go and run in 2016 for president” but called it a “ludicrous” legislative strategy. Rubin called for the GOP’s “sanity caucus” to save the party.

“The shutdown strategy’s complete flop should demonstrate to all but those determined to create their own counter-reality that the shutdown squad doesn’t represent the views of voters or even of GOP voters,” she wrote on Tuesday.

The kamikaze caucus:

Rupert Murdoch and Roger Ailes:record-low approval ratings for the GOP should give Murdoch and Ailes pause. So far, there is little sign of this.

Paul Ryan: In what turned out to be an exercise in wishful thinking, I wrote last week that the fiscal conservative might use the debt fight as a way to break from extreme conservatives. I was wrong. Instead, Ryan is trying to have it both ways. Last week, he was one of the first Republicans to drop the defunding of Obamacare as a condition for reopening the government. Yet on Wednesday night, he voted with House conservatives against the bipartisan deal to reopen the government and avoid a default.

Ryan and Senator Patty Murray, a Washington Democrat, will co-chair the bipartisan panel of lawmakers charged with developing a long-term budget plan by December 13. Ryan’s no vote on Wednesday suggests that chances of any agreement are low.

Marco Rubio: The Florida senator who had courageously embraced immigration reform earlier this year continued the move back to his Tea Party roots during the shutdown. On Wednesday night, Rubio voted against the bipartisan deal. Clearly, Rubio is positioning himself for a 2016 presidential run against Cruz and Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky, both of whom also voted against the deal.

Senators and House members who voted against the bipartisan deal: The Washington Postcompiled a breakdown of the 18 senators and 144 representatives who voted against the agreement. Political survival drove the votes of Republicans from conservative states and districts. It was also clear, of course, that the measure would pass. But anyone who voted against a last-minute, bipartisan deal to avoid the first ever U.S. default is cause for alarm.

Heritage Action and Club for Growth: The two ultra-conservative, 501(c)4 organizations, formed shortly after the Citizens United decision, have been key funders of Cruz and other hard-line conservatives. Their threats to fund Tea Party primary challengers against those who supported the agreement are unnerving to moderate Republicans.

The challenge:

Though the deficit is dropping, conservative Republicans are right on one issue: The United States faces an enormous long-term debt problem. A grand bargain that involves entitlement reforms and revenue increases is needed. Moderate Republicans are the key to making it happen.

Opinions polls show that Americans are desperate for a government that works. Democrats winning control of the House in 2016 is a short-term solution to the gridlock. But the only real long-term fix is a more unified and centrist Republican Party.


This article also appears at Reuters.com, an Atlantic partner site.

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David Rohde is an investigative reporter for Reuters and a contributing editor for The Atlantic. A two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize, he is a former foreign correspondent for The New York Times and The Christian Science Monitor. His latest book, Beyond War: Reimagining American Influence in a New Middle East, was published in 2013. More

He is also the author of Endgame and, with Kristen Mulvihill, A Rope and a Prayer. He lives in New York City.

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