Imagine the ground is splitting open beneath your feet. The rocking plates of earth slowly spread apart, and you're left straddling both sides to keep from falling in.
That is how some of the most publicly visible GOP lawmakers are feeling right now. They must choose whose side they're on: establishment Republicans or the far-right flank.
Ultraconservative groups are furious over the omnibus appropriations package that coasted through the Republican-led House on Wednesday. The bill, which would fund the government for the rest of the year, is expected to pass the Senate later this week, but conservatives are not done pushing back. They have put the Grand Old Party's most vocal members on the defensive on budget issues, and they're not mincing their words.
"I have often been proud to be a GOP-er, sometimes embarrassed, but never until today ashamed," said influential conservative talk-show host Hugh Hewitt during a heated interview with House Budget Committe Chairman and usual conservative darling Paul Ryan this week. For Hewitt, the most offending part of the spending bill is a 1 percentage point cut to annual cost-of-living increases, which translates into a pension cut that would affect active-duty members.
"If you think that I wanted to do this or enjoy doing this, that's not true," Ryan told Hewitt of the budget cuts. "Had Mitt [Romney] and I won that election, this would not be required. This would not be necessary." He added later, "Now do I want to do this? Did I think this was a great thing to do and what we needed to do? No, course not," he went on. Ryan did, of course, vote for the bill.
Hewitt similarly pressed another Republican guest on his show, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, who dodged questions about the spending bill by steering the conversation toward health care.
Heritage Action for America, a right-wing advocacy organization, came out in strong opposition to the spending bill Tuesday, listing a series of complaints on its website. Earlier this month, its CEO, Michael Needham, told reporters during an interview on C-SPAN, "Seventy-two percent of the American people don't like the Republican Party. I'm one of those right now."
The conservative Club for Growth had also urged lawmakers to vote no on the bill this week, calling the Ryan-Murray deal on which it is based "flawed."
Cracks began to show in the conservative foundation last fall, when establishment Republicans and tea partiers butted heads over ideology and policy during the health care debate that forced a government shutdown. The latest backlash against the spending bill shows it's only getting tougher for some Republican lawmakers to appease their right flank, especially as the party moves toward some action on economic inequality.
Bipartisan effort—especially over inequality issues—is key for Republicans this year, especially in the lead-up to midterm and presidential elections. But any compromise is sure to stick in conservative groups' craw, threatening to further splinter the GOP. And a fractured GOP heading into the 2016 primary season is exactly the kind of situation Republicans would like to avoid.
While some lawmakers with eyes on the White House straddle the divide, others have drawn their lines. House Speaker John Boehner continues to rebuff his critics from the far-right flank. Some conservatives, including Rep. Justin Amash of Michigan, have gone as far as to form their own caucus because the Republican Study Committee is not "hard-core" enough.
This March, Rubio and fellow Sen. Rand Paul are set to headline the Conservative Political Action Conference, an annual gathering that doubles as a popularity contest for presidential contenders. How popular these visible Republicans will be within their own party by then depends on how well they can handle a divided party.
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