Smooth sailing for GOP while Dems are in upheaval, but long road ahead

Jon Ward Contributor
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Republicans, who were expected to be overwhelmed by internal divisions and Tea Party discord, have navigated the first set of rapids with surprising ease following the midterm elections, while Democrats have suffered a level of chaos that most did not foresee.

It is still early, and there is plenty of time and potential for the GOP to fall apart under the weight of demands from grassroots activists and conservative groups. But the impending GOP civil war predicted by many has yet to materialize.

House Republicans have avoided fights for the number three and four positions in leadership. Pete Sessions of Texas chose to stay at the National Republican Congressional Committee, declining to challenge Kevin McCarthy of California for House Majority Whip. And Michele Bachmann of Minnesota bowed out of a run against Jeb Hensarling of Texas for House Republican Conference Chair.

Bachmann, in particular, could have posed a major headache for the soon-to-be House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio if she wanted to, due to her national profile as a Tea Party leader. But Bachmann kept her powder dry, giving herself more leverage for future showdowns and earning points for being a team player.

House Democrats, meanwhile, have been thrown into a tumult by current Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s decision to remain the leader of the caucus. The surprise move has pushed Majority Leader Steny Hoyer of Maryland and Majority Whip James Clyburn of South Carolina into an acrimonious fight for the number two position in the minority: House Minority Whip.

Next week promises to only continue these trends. Republicans will hold leadership elections that are all but guaranteed to go swimmingly, and will establish a steering committee that will hold sway over committee posts and other matters.

House Democrats, meanwhile, will confront the unpleasantness of seeing one of their top leaders over the past four years shunted aside to a lesser position. If it is Clyburn, the outcry from the Congressional Black Caucus could be loud.

Democrats Thursday shrugged off the discord, attributing it to the trauma of a historic defeat.

“We just lost 60 plus seats. Who thought the week after would be smooth?” said one House Democratic aide.

Another House Democratic leadership staffer said that “whenever a party suffers losses like we did, they have to regroup.”

“Part of that is taking a hard look at leadership and party priorities. Republicans went through the same thing after they suffered losses in ’06 that I think they’re still struggling with internally,” the Democrat said. “If you look closely, you’ll see there’s a tension in the top ranks of the GOP leadership.”

“One misstep for Boehner and they’ll tumble into their own internal battle,” the aide said.

Norm Ornstein, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, said that he was “mildly surprised at the Republicans’ smooth sail so far, less at the Dems turbulence.”

“It is usually tough after a massive loss. But I would not make any linear projections,” Ornstein said. “There will be big strains within the GOP once the legislative process actually gets underway — and I am not convinced that Bachmann will now turn into a reflexive loyalist to the leadership.”

Karen Finney, a veteran Democratic strategist and message consultant, said that while such infighting among the Democrats is common in the wake of a loss, it is still “disappointing.”

“Democrats need to direct that energy into fighting the battle at hand — and gearing up for the new session,” Finney said.

Republicans, a Democratic strategist said, “are having similar issues. They are just better at keeping a lid on them.”

That may be true, but so far, any tensions between staff for Boehner and House Minority Leader Eric Cantor, Virginia Republican, have been kept very quiet.

The next potential stumbling block for the House GOP will come in December when they name committee chairs. The two committees that could be problematic are Appropriations and Energy and Commerce.

There are mixed signals over whether conservatives will fight some of the candidates being floated for those two committees.

David Keene, president of the American Conservative Union, said Thursday that if Boehner gives the Appropriations Committee chairmanship to Jerry Lewis of California, who has been on Appropriations since 1999 and chaired it from 2005 to 2007, “the Speaker will be telling voters he is tone deaf.”

Keene called Lewis, who has drawn the attention of federal investigators for his use of his appropriations committee position, “almost a poster-child with what’s wrong with the appropriations process.”

But Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, said that Lewis would not necessarily be a bad choice to run the committee again.

“He could work with leadership and he knows where the bodies are buried, so he could get the big draw down [on spending] even if he’s building swimming pools in his district,” Norquist said.

“If they drop all of the additional expenditures that the Obama people put on, the $100 billion a year jump in discretionary spending – if they erase that and some guy gets a bridge somewhere, I don’t care,” Norquist said. “But if you’re not doing the big roll back, then every $600 hammer is going to drive people nuts.”

“Is this causing even optical problems for our team? I don’t see it right now,” he said in an interview.

But the Family Research Council is not happy with the possibility that Fred Upton of Michigan may be named chairman of Energy and Commerce, based on his liberal positions on stem cell research and other social issues, as well as his support for climate change legislation in the past.

“It’s not a great start,” said Thomas McClusky, senior vice president at Family Research Council Action. “It concerns me that maybe the Republicans still haven’t gotten it.”

“What the Tea Party folks are trying to say, what our folks are trying to say, is that this is a second chance for Republicans and it could very well be a last chance if they mess things up,” McClusky said.

In the Senate, Republicans are scheduled to vote Tuesday on whether or not to impose a moratorium on earmarks, a move that House Republicans have already said they will make. A few Republican senators, most prominently Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma, have said that Republicans should not ban earmarks because that would cede too much control over spending to the president.

Inhofe made calls Wednesday to Tea Party movement leaders to try to explain his position on earmarks. One such leader said that while conservatives have some concern over positions being taken by Republicans so far, they are waiting to see what their actions are.

“Trust me, they’ll feel the heat if they do the wrong things,” said Mark Meckler, co-founder of Tea Party Patriots, a national group that coordinates grassroots organizing on the right. “If they are off path, they’ll ultimately pay the political price.”

Finney said that in order to get back up off the mat, Democrats need to pull together.

“On our side the Hill folks and White House need to get on the same page or decide that they are not going to be,” she said, referring to the upcoming fights over extending the Bush tax cuts, whether or not to repeal Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, and how to respond to President Obama’s deficit commission.

As for the president, he himself came under heavy fire from the liberal base, after top adviser David Axelrod signaled that the White House will knuckle under to Republicans and support an extension of the Bush tax cuts for all income brackets. After Axelrod’s comments appeared in the Huffington Post Thursday morning, he tried to dial them back in an e-mail to National Journal, but the damage was done.

Adam Green of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee sent out a howling mad e-mail to supporters, asking them to sign a petition calling on Obama to “fight the Bush tax cuts for millionaires.”

“As Republicans boast that their #1 priority is to defeat Obama in 2012, we’ve seen nothing but capitulation and talk of ‘compromise’ from the President since Election Day,” Green wrote. “”It’s time for us to ask: President Obama, ARE YOU KIDDING? Fight the Republicans already!”

Green sent out an update in the evening saying that 55,000 people had signed the petition.

Obama, badly in need of some kind of win after last week’s election results – which was then followed this week by several days of criticism from foreign governments of U.S. monetary policy – came away empty-handed from trade talks with South Korea Thursday.

“We don’t want months to pass before we get this done, we want this to be done in a matter of weeks,” Obama said at a press conference in Seoul with South Korean President Lee Myung-bak.

That press conference didn’t get much better. Lee was asked whether the Federal Reserve’s decision to buy up $600 billion in U.S. debt might cause problems for South Korea.

“I think that kind of question should be asked to me when President Obama is not standing right next to me,” Lee said, prompting laughter.

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