Even Paul Ryan Can’t Please Conservatives Anymore

This week’s spending-bill fight revealed deepening fractures within the GOP, spelling trouble for 2016.

Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis.
National Journal
Marina Koren
Jan. 16, 2014, 8:42 a.m.

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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