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Zealous conservatives appear unlikely to compromise in next Congress

A kinder, gentler, GOP caucus in Congress? Hardly

After November's midterm election, polls found that most Americans wanted their members of Congress to seek compromise — anything to end the gridlock that has plagued Washington. An NBC-Wall Street Journal survey found that even among Republicans, more favor compromise over intransigence. Four years ago, only 27% of GOP voters were in the compromise camp; now 49% are, while just 45% want their legislators to stand firm.

But that message hasn't reached everyone in Washington. As Republicans' internal wrangling on Capitol Hill made clear on Tuesday, House Speaker John A. Boehner's majority is still hamstrung by a knot of zealous conservatives who don't want to yield. And there's no reason to think that will change next year.

The issue on the table is that Congress needs to pass a spending bill by Dec. 11, or the federal government stops working.

Boehner, of Ohio, has already ruled out another government shutdown. The last time the GOP tried that, in 2013, it was an inglorious failure that drove the party's popularity to record lows.

But the Republicans whom Boehner wants to move a spending bill, especially tea party conservatives, are furious at Obama for his decision to allow an estimated 4 million undocumented immigrants to stay in the country without fear of deportation, and they're looking for a way to stop the move from going forward.

On Tuesday, Boehner proposed a way to channel that anger without jeopardizing a budget deal. First, he said, the House could pass a bill declaring Obama's executive action illegal. Then it could approve funding for the government for the next nine months, to avoid a shutdown.

But conservatives weren't having it. The bill declaring Obama's action illegal would only be symbolic, they complained, since it would almost certainly die in the Senate, which still has a Democratic majority until next month. Meanwhile, the spending bill would allow the federal government to carry out the president's orders.

"I don't think you fund any unconstitutional action … not even for the short term," objected Rep. Joe L. Barton (R-Texas). "On principle, we should not compromise."

Outside D.C., conservative zealots were far less polite. On his Red State blog, Erick Erickson denounced "Boehner's two-step plan to do nothing about amnesty," saying the speaker needed some "testicular fortitude."

That left Boehner where he has been a half dozen times before: negotiating with the most conservative members of his own party to try to hold his majority together. After a closed-door meeting in the Capitol in which he tried to sell his plan — and appealed to his members to "be responsible" — the speaker admitted he wasn't there yet.

"We're looking at a variety of options," he said. "No decisions have been made at this point."

What might those options include? The House could pass a bill that funds the government for less than nine months, thus giving Republicans another chance to use the power of the purse early next year. The House could fund most of the government for nine months, but put the Department of Homeland Security, which runs the immigration service, on a shorter leash. And Boehner could even ask Democrats to lend him some votes to keep the government running, although their leader, Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco), has said she's not interested in bailing him out.

The moral of the story is this: Last month's election didn't change Congress much, at least in the short run. We're still heading toward the same kind of cliffhanger that we've seen on spending bills for the last three years.

"The Republican Party is still caught up in a struggle between pragmatic conservatives and radicals," noted Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute. "That hasn't changed."

And the furor over immigration hasn't helped. "The Republican base is now convinced that Barack Obama is trying to hijack the Constitution," Ornstein noted. "How do you turn around and say now we want to work with him?"

There are still optimists who think this is a passing phase, that Republicans, once they have the majority in both houses, will embrace the opportunity to show voters that they can make Washington work again.

"I think it's going to be better," said former Rep. Mickey Edwards, an Oklahoma Republican who has worked on projects to reform Congress for two decades. "I may be a Pollyanna, but I think the lesson of the last election was that the tea party lost. The people who won are conservative, but they are conservatives who want to govern."

Maybe. At least one of those winning conservatives, Rep. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), who won a Senate seat last month, says he's not ready to back Boehner's proposal. Many of the 41 new Republicans coming to the House next month come from the GOP's tea party wing, not Boehner's pragmatic conservative tradition.

Said Ornstein: "If he's been herding cats until now, just wait until he has to deal with all the feral cats who arrive in January."

doyle.mcmanus@latimes.com

Twitter: @DoyleMcManus

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