New Fronts in the GOP Civil War

The civil war is for the most part not focused on ideology but on emphasis and style, tactics and strategy.

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The arrival this week of a $1.1 trillion "omnibus" spending bill – which will keep the government open for the rest of the fiscal year – established a new front in the political civil war which is working its way through the GOP.

The bill was the fill-in-the-details byproduct of the broad budget agreement that Patty Murray and Paul Ryan, the chairs of the Senate and House budget committees, respectively, hashed out in December. It was a refreshing reminder of the definition of the word compromise, with both sides coming out with minor victories and minor concessions. As the Associated Press reported this week, "The massive measure contains dozens of trade-offs between Democrats and Republicans as it fleshes out the details of the budget deal that Congress made last month." Maybe Congress can sing "Kumbaya" and chew gum at the same time after all.

The bill didn't make people happy, precisely, but the nation didn't need an outbreak of legislative bliss, simply that Congress avoid shutting down the government again. But for the hard-liners in the GOP civil war that wasn't an optimal (or even acceptable) outcome.

"Are we sure we don't want to try another partial shutdown?" Human Events' John Hayward wrote, presumably in jest, in an article entitled, "The Spending Bill: 1,582 Pages of Dismay." Heritage Action concluded, rather mildly, that the bill "takes the country in the wrong direction, both in terms of policy and overall spending levels" and promised to include the vote on its legislative scorecard. So did the Club for Growth, the original incumbent-hunting conservative insurgent group. The omnibus "funds Obamacare [and] plusses up other wasteful programs," the group said in a press release.

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These were the groups that led the shutdown charge last fall, so it's a measure of the hangover that fiasco has caused on the right that only 64 House Republicans voted against the $1 trillion spending bill on Wednesday afternoon. "The shutdown educated – particularly our younger members who weren't here during the earlier shutdown – about how futile that practice is," House Appropriations Committee Chairman Harold Rogers told the Associated Press earlier in the week.

Nevertheless, you can imagine the negative ads these Republicans could soon face in primaries: By voting for a bill that doesn't defund Obamacare they voted to fund Obamacare. It's the inescapable binary logic of political campaigns, and it was part of the reasoning (such as it was) behind the government shutdown.

But that exercise left its scars and the GOP pragmatists – the civil war is for the most part not focused on ideology but on emphasis and style, tactics and strategy – have for the most part given up the repeal talk. (It's worth noting that many Republicans have moved off the "defund" position because of their certainty that the law is imploding and bound to take the Democrats down with it.) Asked by Politico whether the next debt ceiling showdown, expected some time in the first half of this year, will involve demands to defund Obamacare, Rep. Phil Roe said he didn't think it would work: "We've had a dress rehearsal for that comedy."

And no less an establishment figure than U.S. Chamber of Commerce President Thomas Donohue said last week in his "State of American Business" address that, "The administration is obviously committed to keeping the law in place, so the Chamber's not opposing it." Instead, he wants to focus on fixing it. And just this week Randall Stephenson, the head of AT&T and chairman of the Business Roundtable, said that along with Social Security and Medicare, the Affordable Care Act is a "key entitlement" which we should "sustain and preserve."

[See a collection of political cartoons on Obamacare.]

These are fighting words for the fanatics, many of whom still harbor the defund dream. So Texas Sen. Ted Cruz told The Wall Street Journal earlier this month that the GOP should use "every leverage point available" to roll back the law.