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Congressional Republicans just can't win with the right

They are facing a backlash over what could be considered GOP victories, such as the tax-cut compromise, which conservative activists have decried as back-room wheeling and dealing.

December 20, 2010|By James Oliphant, Washington Bureau

Reporting from Washington — The passage of a sweeping tax package and the collapse of a massive spending bill last week should have had Republicans in full swagger, basking in the power the party reclaimed in November's election.

In truth, however, it wasn't that easy. Battles over both issues laid bare fissures within the party as it prepares to become an equal partner in governing with President Obama and Senate Democrats next month.

The GOP-backed tax deal, in particular, exposed dissension in the ranks that didn't exist earlier in the year, when Republicans were unified in their opposition to Obama and the Democratic agenda.

Some conservative "tea party" activists decried it as the sort of back-room wheeling and dealing they thought the congressional midterm elections had done away with. Possible presidential candidates such as Sarah Palin and Mitt Romney ripped the tax accord, saying it didn't go far enough, while congressional deficit hawks groused that the $858-billion bill didn't hold the line on spending.

The backlash surprised the deal's proponents, who argued that the GOP had secured a major victory in extending the George W. Bush-era tax cuts for two years to all income levels, while throwing in estate tax relief and a reduction in the Social Security payroll tax for good measure. The Bush tax cuts would have expired Dec. 31.

"We got the whole package," said Grover Norquist, a longtime anti-tax crusader in Washington. "We would have had nothing if not for this deal."

But Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, said outside-the-Beltway criticism is just beginning. Politicians like Romney and Palin are immune from the second-guessing that comes with legislating. Republicans on Capitol Hill, on the other hand, no longer have the luxury of operating outside the establishment.

This criticism "is not a one-time thing," he said. "This is going to happen again and again."

John Makin, an economist with the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, said rising Republican discontent with the tax deal led to a furious revolt that forced Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) to withdraw the $1.3-trillion omnibus spending bill late last week.

"Republicans were becoming increasingly unhappy" with the tax accord, Makin said, and the whirlwind over the bill to fund the government "was the manifestation" of that unhappiness.

The spending bill showed cracks in the GOP foundation, too. The top GOP leader in the Senate, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, had included earmarks to benefit his home state. So had other Republicans who swore off the practice only last month.

As conservative anger over the tax deal fomented and tea party activists railed, McConnell reversed himself and assailed the spending package and earmarks. Other Republicans did too.

Conservatives portrayed the spending bill as a 2,000-page budget-buster, a prime example of the pork-barrel politics that the new GOP majority in the House swore to eliminate.

Within 24 hours, the outcry grew so loud that GOP support drained, the necessary votes evaporated and Reid capitulated. Conservative groups called it a "major victory."

Both the tax-cut and spending-bill fights showed that conservative activists who fueled November's Republican rout aren't going to sit by quietly: Now they will antagonize Republicans along with Democrats.

One tea party group was so unhappy with the tax agreement that it mounted a petition drive and accused the GOP of engaging in the kind of horse-trading the party lambasted during the fight over the healthcare overhaul earlier this year.

Mark Meckler, a spokesman for Tea Party Patriots, which launched the campaign, said Republicans had already broken their "Pledge to America," a blueprint Republican House leaders released in the fall detailing how they would govern.

"They negotiated this behind closed doors," Meckler said. "That's exactly what voters objected to in November."

Michael Steel, a spokesman for Republican Rep. John A. Boehner of Ohio, who is set to become speaker of the House next month, said the GOP can't live up to the pledge until it's in charge. In the meantime, Steel said, the party had to prevent taxes from increasing at the end of the year.

"Republicans remain committed to implementing those reforms, and will begin doing so immediately when we take over the House on Jan. 5," Steel said.

Tea party groups weren't in harmony over the tax deal. Although Meckler's group opposed it, FreedomWorks cheered it.

John Geer, a political science professor at Vanderbilt University, said congressional Republicans who backed the tax deal will find themselves targeted by opportunistic GOP presidential contenders.

"You can't go wrong bashing Congress," Geer said. "You remind the Republican base that these people are already compromising with Obama. You say, 'I'd never do that.' "

More tension between Republican activists and GOP congressional leaders lies ahead, he said.

"These kind of clashes are inevitable," Geer said.

joliphant@latimes.com

Kathleen Hennessey in the Washington bureau contributed to this report.

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