GOP presidential candidates pick up ‘Party of No’ banner as congressional Republicans work with Obama

Jon Ward Contributor
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For the most part, Republicans since the midterm elections have gone from the party of “No” to the party of compromise.

But there is still a group of Republicans who have continued to carry the banner of opposition to Democratic-led proposals after the Nov. 2 election: likely presidential candidates.

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney came out Tuesday against the tax rate extension deal cut between President Obama and congressional Republicans.

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich wrote a forceful letter to senators this week urging them not to support the current version of a nuclear arms reduction treaty with Russia.

And Rep. Mike Pence, the Indiana Republican who vacated his leadership position in the House to consider a possible run for the White House, said Wednesday he would vote against the tax deal.

Their stances stand in contrast to the way that Republican lawmakers in Congress have responded to Obama’s initiatives since regaining power in the House and shrinking the Democrats’ majority in the Senate.

The main test has been the tax deal, where Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, worked directly with Vice President Joe Biden to reach an agreement that passed the Senate Wednesday and appears on track to pass  the House later this week or early next week, likely with no major changes.

But key conservatives in the House – such as Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin – have also made the case in public for the tax deal.

And when the president’s debt commission released its final report in early December, stalwart anti-spending Republicans such as Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma and Sen. Mike Crapo of Idaho supported it, even though conservative groups said the plan would increase taxes by at least $1 trillion.

Even some presidential candidates have hedged. Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin originally indicated last week she might be opposed to the tax deal, writing negatively about the idea on her Twitter account. But she has not made a clear statement of her position on the issue, and a spokeswoman has declined to answer questions on the matter.

Taken all together, it is a clear example of the difference between playing politics and having to govern. Republicans in Congress are now partially responsible for the direction of the country, and will be held accountable at the ballot box much more so than they were in 2010.

The tax deal in particular shows that what many in the Tea Party feared would happen, rightly or wrongly, is already taking place: Republicans are working with the Obama administration instead of continuing to oppose everything it tries to accomplish.

Obama grew exasperated with Republican opposition during his first two years, when Democrats controlled both chambers of Congress. During the campaign season last summer and fall, he routinely decried the GOP for being “cynical” and said they were putting partisan objectives above the good of the country.

However, some of the Republican opposition to the president’s health care law was principled and based on a very real and fundamental difference of opinion about the best way to bring down costs while maintaining the quality of care.

Coburn, for example, has continued to attempt to force the Senate to pay for spending that they are tossing onto the national debt. He introduced an amendment Wednesday to the tax deal to cut $60 billion in spending to pay for the 13-month extension of unemployment insurance in the package, which was defeated when 52 Democrats voted against it.

And Coburn voted against the final tax deal bill, immune to charges of voting for a tax increase because of his consistent and unswerving focus on spending reduction over the past year.

But the vehemence with which wide swaths of Republicans denounced even one penny of unpaid spending before November – House Minority Whip Eric Cantor went to the floor weekly to announce spending cut ideas proposed by constituents – subsided quickly with their pragmatic approach to the tax deal.

The result, so far, has been some griping on the right. Radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh was aghast after Rep. John Boehner, the soon-to-be Republican Speaker of the House, Rep. Eric Cantor, who will be House Majority Leader, and McConnell emerged from a meeting with Obama on Nov. 30 talking of finding “common ground” with the president.

“I’m just trying to remember what the Tea Party people thought they were getting with this win and what they said prior to it that they wanted. And I just don’t remember this,” Limbaugh said. “Now, I coulda been playing golf that day.”

“I don’t remember the Tea Party saying, ‘Damn it, you guys compromise and work together. We want to see you all get along, for us,'” he said. “I’ve apparently been laboring here on a total misunderstanding. I thought that the Tea Party wanted Obama stopped.”

There has also been outrage from some Tea Party groups with national profiles, but no real grassroots surge of anger. Perhaps it’s the time of year, perhaps Tea Party voters are waiting to see what happens in the months ahead, and perhaps some of them actually have a pragmatic side and are willing to settle for the tax deal.

“I agree the movement has not mustered a critical mass of demonstrative opposition,” said Bob MacGuffie, a libertarian-leaning conservative activist involved in the Connecticut Tea Party movement. “Many of us are taking this Christmas time to get our lives back in order after a 21 month marathon.”

There is the possibility that some Republicans draw the lesson from the tax deal outcome that their base has stopped watching, and that compromise with the administration is a politically viable route. MacGuffie said that if they did think that they would be making a grave mistake.

“I’m sure there are Republican blockheads who think the Tea Party isn’t watching and they’ve again got free reign,” he said in an e-mail. “The Republican House hasn’t yet been sworn in, but when they are it will be OUR tea party representatives, who WE propelled into office, whose feet will be held to the fire.”

“Should they start to compromise with the Socialist Democrats we will light up their scoreboards like nothing they’ve ever seen. Remember we have all their e-mail addresses and cell numbers.”

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