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.
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.

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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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