GOP Split Over the Debt

From right to left, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Va., House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy of Calif., and House Speaker John Boehner. Susan Walsh / AP

However the debt-ceiling standoff is ultimately resolved, the trench warfare between House Republicans and the Democratic president has shown the country that the GOP is caught between its antigovernment fervor and the need to keep the lights on.

The populist Tea Party movement that helped the Republicans capture the House last year is fueled by a loathing for government and a refusal to support a deal with Democrats offering what once would have been unthinkable budget cuts. Republicans have even turned on their own, treating the party stalwart Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell like an ideological traitor for proposing a last-ditch plan to allow President Obama to unilaterally raise the debt ceiling rather than watch the federal government slide into default.

"McConnell needs to be sent home," says Mark Meckler, cofounder of Tea Party Patriots. "It's an embarrassment. It's an abdication of governing responsibility." He is just as dismissive of such House GOP leaders as Speaker John Boehner for their willingness to compromise: "These guys are out of touch with reality."

But compromise is a Washington reality, which is why McConnell first broached his plan with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who promised not to trash it. More telling, perhaps, was his call to Grover Norquist, the conservative crusader who has gotten most Republican members of Congress to sign a no-new-taxes pledge. "I think it makes sense," he told the senator. Norquist tells NEWSWEEK he would rather have Obama "own the whole thing" than see Republicans accept "a phony budget deal that looked like you were cutting spending."

What remains of the party's pragmatic wing is nervous. John McCain says independent voters "are now up for grabs," and that "too many new Republicans are already committed to not raising the debt ceiling no matter what." And how times have changed: Bruce Bartlett, a onetime aide to Ronald Reagan, says that "Reagan couldn't get elected dogcatcher these days. He raised taxes at least 11 times. Back then you had responsible adults in the Republican Party who put country over partisanship."

Yet much of the GOP's energy now comes from the Tea Party crowd that adores insurgent presidential candidate Michele Bachmann, the Minnesota congresswoman who opposes raising the debt ceiling. Bachmann rejects tax hikes in any form and accuses the White House of hyping the dangers of default if no budget deal is reached by the Aug. 2 deadline. Such talk prompts Democratic Rep. Chris Van Hollen to accuse some Republicans of acting "like cult members."

While detractors accuse the GOP of recklessness, the party's hard-liners say they are keeping a campaign promise to block job-killing taxes. But the brinksmanship could undermine the party's electoral self-interest. It was precisely that concern that led McConnell to craft his fallback plan. Already under pressure from business groups to make a deal on the debt, McConnell privately concluded that every group—seniors, veterans, military families—would side with Obama if a default tanked the economy. "Republicans would get reamed," a GOP official says. "The default crowd doesn't get that."

The upshot is that Republicans will head into 2012 with their presidential candidates in the mold of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, who has become the face of the negotiations by denouncing every plan with a whiff of revenue hikes, including one backed by Boehner, Cantor's ostensible boss. Obama, meanwhile, will portray the party as risking economic chaos to protect the rich.

The schism in the GOP is mirrored by divisions in the Tea Party movement. Matt Kibbe, president of Freedom Works, wonders why Republicans refuse to take "yes" for an answer. "When Obama is talking about trillions of dollars in spending cuts," Kibbe says, "we've changed the conversation."

And that, says historian Richard Norton Smith, underlines the paradox of today's Republican Party: "When you think how far things have moved in the last six months, they won. Why can't they accept that fact? Purity is fine in theory, but they seem wedded to the impossible."