GOP Debate Exposes a Rift that Could Topple Boehner
Policy + Politics

GOP Debate Exposes a Rift that Could Topple Boehner

© Yuri Gripas / Reuters

Republicans are at war with themselves over Obamacare, Planned Parenthood and the U.S.-Iran nuclear deal and how best to stand up to President Obama – a conflict that may end up costing House Speaker John Boehner his job.

With the clock ticking towards the possibility of another government shutdown, GOP lawmakers and presidential candidates are at odds over how far to go in trying to impose their will on the administration and the country.

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This battle is pitting conservative ideologues who say they are willing to fight for their principles at any cost against pragmatists who believe in compromise and cutting deals with Democrats to avert another government funding crisis before the 2016 election – one that likely would be blamed on the GOP majority in both chambers.

That rift was neatly encapsulated in a sharp exchange Wednesday night between Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal during the nationally televised undercard debate of Republican presidential candidates in California.

Graham, the quintessential Republican pragmatist and deal maker, rejected his fellow conservatives’ demands in the House and Senate for a showdown with the Democrats over GOP efforts to defund Planned Parenthood.

"Bobby, we're running to be President of the United States. The most important job in the free world,” Graham said during the debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, Calif. “With it comes a certain amount of honesty. I'm tired of telling people things they want to hear that I know we can't do.”

Graham is in the same camp as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), who believes the government shutdown strategy is a fool’s mission and that their party would be blamed by voters if the Republican-controlled Congress fails to adopt a continuing resolution to keep the government operating beyond the Sept. 30 deadline.

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While McConnell’s job is secure, that isn’t necessarily the case for Boehner, the long beleaguered House speaker who is caught between a band of roughly two dozen hard-right conservatives demanding an all-out fight over Planned Parenthood and more moderate pragmatists unwilling to go through another government shutdown.

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Boehner struggled to secure his third term as Speaker because of long-standing complaints about his leadership from the right. Now a relatively small faction of insurgent conservatives led by members of the House Freedom Caucus is threatening to try to oust him unless they get their way on spending legislation by the end of the month.

Opponents already have begun to float names of possible successors to Boehner, including House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California – a loyal Boehner lieutenant – and Ways and Means Committee Chair Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, the 2012 GOP vice presidential nominee.

The two men issued statements to Politico on Wednesday strongly backing Boehner and calling for an end to the disruptive internal party warfare that was crippling the leadership. McCarthy said that “the intrigue and fighting amongst ourselves only makes it harder” to confront Obama’s “disastrous policies.”

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Ryan declared, “The best person to lead the conference right now is John Boehner, and any attempt to remove him would be counter-productive,” according to Politico.

During a closed-door meeting of House Republicans on Thursday morning, Boehner and other GOP leaders sought to persuade members that it would be serious mistake to risk fomenting a government shutdown in a bid to block federal funding for Planned Parenthood, according to The Hill. The leaders showed rank and file members polling data indicating that Republicans would be blamed for another government shutdown.

Rep. Matt Salmon (R-AZ), one of the conservative ring leaders who wants to slash more than $500 million from Planned Parenthood’s funding, downplayed the significance of the polling. He said that nobody wants another government shutdown if it can be avoided, while adding: “Our leaders wave the white flag every time there’s any kind of confrontation.”

In the debate, Graham said that he was as offended as anyone by videos showing Planned Parenthood officials discussing their policies for providing aborted fetal tissue to researchers. “But the one thing I'm not going to do going into 2016 is shut the government down and taint our ability to win. What you're saying and what Senator Cruz is saying, I am really sick of hearing. Trying to get the Republican Party in a position to win is what I'm trying to do. That does matter to me."

Jindal, for his part, denounced congressional Republican leaders for squandering the chance to advance a truly conservative agenda with majorities in the House and Senate for the first time in a decade. He also blamed the Republican leadership for allowing President Obama to prevail in preserving the Affordable Care Act and circumventing congressional opposition to the highly unpopular U.S.-Iran nuclear deal.

"I wish the Senate Republicans had half the fight in them the Senate Democrats did," Jindal said. "They forced Obamacare down our throats even when they didn't have 60 votes. I wish Republicans in D.C. had half the fight of the Senate Democrats to get rid of Obamacare, to defund Planned Parenthood. If we can't defund Planned Parenthood now; if we can't stand up for innocent human life after these barbaric videos, it is time to be done with the Republican Party."

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Compounding the problem, Donald Trump, the GOP presidential frontrunner, has joined in hammering congressional leaders as “very, very stupid people” for allowing Obama to get his way on the Iran nuclear agreement and on key funding issues that could add to the government’s huge debt. And Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, another GOP presidential candidate, has openly called McConnell a “liar” for misleading him and other Senate Republicans on his strategy for passing major Asian trade legislation favored by Obama.

McConnell has infuriated Cruz and other more conservative Republicans in the Senate for trying to sidestep the controversy over Planned Parenthood spending and negotiate a major year-end budget deal with the Democrats that would give the president most of the additional domestic spending he is seeking.

McConnell has said there is no practical way to eliminate funding for Planned Parenthood without prompting a presidential veto and that he is determined there will not be another partial government shutdown like the 16-day crisis in October 2013.  However, Trump said in a recent radio interview that the GOP led Congress should risk another government shutdown if that’s the “only way to get rid of Planned Parenthood money.”