Debt Talks Bring Out Strains In GOP Ranks

House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio (right) and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on Friday. i i

House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio (right) and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on Friday. Susan Walsh/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Susan Walsh/AP
House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio (right) and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on Friday.

House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio (right) and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on Friday.

Susan Walsh/AP

Twenty-four. That's the number of bills President Obama has signed into law since the swearing in of the 112th Congress this January. That's about a quarter of the amount that the president signed during the same period last year.

Certainly, productivity slips when Congress is split, but the trickle of bills passed this year suggests a new kind of logjam.

What may make this period more challenging — and not just for Obama, but even for some congressional Republicans — is a group within the party that sees compromise as a four-letter word.

They are the 83 freshmen Republicans, most of whom are aligned with the Tea Party. One of them, Tom Graves of Georgia, spoke this week about why he won't vote to raise the debt limit.

"Let's put government in a box and shrink the box over five years," he said. "This is no time to compromise. We've got to hold firm right now. We have $14 trillion in debt. We cannot continue to compromise America's future."

Obama has proposed $4 trillion in spending cuts paired with tax and fee increases. Congressional Republicans have balked at the offer. Conservative columnist David Brooks called accepting a compromise "the mother of all no-brainers."

But many in the Republican Party aren't in a mood to compromise. Historian Sean Wilentz suggests some reasons for the Republican position.

"There is a view that anything a Democrat says, Republicans will automatically oppose," Wilentz says. "So if it's a Republican idea, but coming out of President Obama's mouth, it has to be opposed."

But Wilentz also sees longer-term trends at play.

"The Republican Party itself is continuing to evolve, and it continues to move further and further to the right," Wilentz says. "This is a dynamic that goes back 20 years."

Wilentz says over that time, "Republicans have gone back to certain ideas that were out there in the Reagan era — supply-side economics and so forth — and turned them into such dogma that they're willing to see the United States government go bankrupt."

The View from the Middle

Republican Mike Castle has witnessed this seismic shift firsthand. Castle was governor of Delaware from 1985 to 1993, and served as the state's House representative from 1993 to 2011. He was a popular moderate in the state at large and was the odds-on favorite when he entered Delaware's senate race in 2010.

He never made it out of the primary, losing to Tea Party insurgent Christine O'Donnell.

When asked by weekends on All Things Considered host Guy Raz about changes within the House Republican caucus, Castle noted, "There was a great reduction in moderate Republicans, even in the time when I was there."

Castle says he feels that the rank decimation of moderates in the House has caused polarization and made compromise a dirty word.

"This makes it very difficult to achieve the greater good as far as the public is concerned," Castle says.

Castle is also concerned how the conservative ferment within the party will affect electoral prospects. He says that Tea Party supporters "seem to be happy in taking out individuals who are more moderate — such as me — and calling us 'Republicans in name only.'"

Castle adds, "I'm not sure they even care what happens at the end in terms of who gets elected."

Leadership Difficulties: No Small Potatoes

H. Dennis Hastert was speaker of the House from 1999 to 2007. He sees the polarization of the political process as a consequence of campaign finance reform.

"It took [money] out of the parties and it pushed the money into the far wings," Hastert says. "Those are the people now that have the money that help people get elected to Congress."

Hastert also knows the difficulties facing current Speaker John Boehner as he negotiates a deal to raise the U.S. debt ceiling.

"If you're a leader like John Boehner is, you lead basically 435 people and they want input into the process, too," Hastert says. "You need every one of those votes — especially the votes in your party — in order to get something done."

Hastert compares the reality of making laws to eating potatoes.

"You can't eat a potato in your mouth at one time. That's why they make potato chips and french fries — you take a bite at a time," Hastert says.

Instead of going for a big deal as advocated by Obama, Hastert suggests breaking legislation into smaller pieces so congressmen can understand what's in the deal before it passes. Hastert would also like to see a deal proceed through Congress rather than the closed-door negotiations going on now.

"Sometimes, when you're forced to go outside regular order and you take a shortcut, you cut [House] members out of that process," Hastert says. "Members need to be involved."

Struggle In The Shadows

The closed-door meetings between the president and congressional leaders have suggested rifts within the Republican leadership. A proposed deal between Obama and Boehner was allegedly axed by House Majority Leader Eric Cantor.

Some people accuse Cantor of stalling the talks for his own political gain. Reporter Jonathan Allen of Politico thinks that's too much of a stretch, but says Cantor is ambitious.

"Cantor came to the Congress in 2001 and swiftly moved up the Republican leadership ranks," Allen tells Raz. "I don't think there's any doubt that he wants to be speaker of the House at some point, or something above that."

So how does that ambition vibe with Boehner?

"I think that Boehner probably likes [Cantor] enough," Allen says. "But I doubt that he trusts him farther than he can throw him."

Allen says this tradition of leadership struggle in Republican Party goes back to Gerald Ford. Ford and supporters like Donald Rumsfeld rewrote conference rules to help Charles Halleck oust his predecessor as speaker. Ford then used those same rules to oust Halleck.

While Allen isn't sure that Cantor will follow in Ford's footsteps, he says Cantor has done a good job of positioning himself as the unofficial spokesman for the strong conservative wing of the party.

If the Republican Party continues its historical shift to the right, he says, Cantor's influence will continue to rise.

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