On Capitol Hill, GOP fighting itself instead of Democrats
WASHINGTON — When Republicans took full control of Congress this year, they were determined to show voters they could govern responsibly. Instead they've been tearing each other apart in extraordinarily public displays, delighting Democrats and giving some in the GOP heartburn as the party aims for the White House in 2016.
Just a few days ago, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz took to the Senate floor to accuse Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of lying, provoking a public dressing-down from top GOP senators.
A second tea party-backed senator, Mike Lee of Utah, had to dispense mea culpas to McConnell and others after an aide's email surfaced suggesting outside groups should punish fellow Republicans for their votes.
And in the latest episode of Republican vs. Republican savagery in less than a week, a conservative lawmaker, Rep. Mark Meadows of North Carolina, filed a resolution Tuesday evening aimed at unseating GOP House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio.
Meadows' move, which infuriated House party leaders, is highly unlikely to oust Boehner. The speaker dismissed it as of little consequence and made clear he would not allow it to come to a vote.
"You got a member here and a member there who are off the reservation," Boehner told reporters. "No big deal."
But the effort was enthusiastically cheered by some conservative groups that promised to use Congress' upcoming August recess to pressure House Republicans to support it — a period Republican leaders had hoped to use to build unified opposition to President Barack Obama's nuclear deal with Iran.
As with the incidents involving Cruz and Lee, the episode underscores the divisions and discontent within a fractured GOP that's struggled all year to balance its promises of good governance with the demands of frustrated activists clamoring for action to thwart Obama.
Democrats haven't escaped their own intramural disputes this year, particularly when a major trade bill divided Obama from most of his allies on Capitol Hill. And they are clearly enjoying the GOP discomfort.
"With apologies to the elephants, when the elephants around here lock tusks it certainly isn't going to be dull," said Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore.
It all comes at the very moment when Republican leaders hoped to send lawmakers home for a month with a positive message and maybe even some results, ahead of what promises to be a challenging fall stacked with economic deadlines, fiscal cliffs, showdowns with the White House and the threat of a government shutdown. Instead they find themselves contending with party controversies far afield from the economic issues dear to most voters — similar to the way Donald Trump has overshadowed the more mainstream GOP presidential candidates and forced them to respond to his provocative pronouncements.
"What people are doing is basically creating an issue within the party that distracts us from focusing on winning in 2016, that focuses us away from the real big issue, and that is the deterioration of national security, Iran's bad deal, Hillary Clinton's problems," said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who like Cruz is running for president.
Alluding to Meadows, Graham said: "I would say to the gentleman from North Carolina, the biggest beneficiary of your actions has been Hillary Clinton and the ayatollah."
The recent episodes are only the latest manifestations of turmoil within the congressional GOP. Clashes between Republican leaders and their conservative flank brought the Department of Homeland Security to within hours of a partial shutdown earlier this year and resulted in a brief lapse in the National Security Agency's eavesdropping authorities thanks to procedural maneuvers by Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., yet another presidential candidate.
Boehner and McConnell, both deeply experienced political pragmatists who have a good relationship, have found themselves repeatedly at odds, including on the Homeland Security and NSA disputes, even while notching wins on issues including trade and Medicare payment reform. Their latest clash was over transportation funding, resulting in both chambers agreeing to a three-month extension that will offer lawmakers little to boast about back home in their districts next month.
"I think we're going to be limping into the recess," said Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz.
Numerous factors contribute to the disunity.
Bank-bench members are celebrated on social media and rewarded by outside conservative groups and voters for challenging party leaders. Leaders themselves can no longer rely on bestowing or eliminating funding for special projects — or earmarks — to reward or punish lawmakers, since that practice has been largely eliminated. Republican animosity toward Obama has created an atmosphere on Capitol Hill where anything that smacks of compromise or retreat provokes howls from conservative voters. And the goals of individual House members representing safe districts — not to mention senators running for president — can run counter to those of their party leaders.
For his part Meadows, a two-term lawmaker elected in the tea party-backed 2010 class, accused Boehner in his resolution of centralizing power, bypassing members of Congress and the public, punishing those who disagree with him and causing the power of Congress to atrophy. "This is really more about an issue of fairness," he said.
Associated Press writers Joan Lowy and Matthew Daly contributed to this report.