Six months after Republicans swept the midterm election by promising bold solutions to fiscal woes, they continue to struggle to find a unified voice on key issues and to overcome persistent divisions within the party.
As the new House majority, Republicans have encountered many of the obstacles that were predicted after their November triumph: difficulties accommodating conservative activists, problems with governing under split control, and maintaining support from independents who helped to put them in power.
The party did win an important budget battle last month, wresting deeper cuts to the 2011 budget and forcing Democrats to focus more narrowly on fiscal issues. But Republican leaders have also stumbled repeatedly trying to satisfy the party’s demanding conservative wing, while inching closer to an election season that will hinge on moderate voters.
“Saul Alinsky taught that the price of a successful attack is a constructive alternative,” said John J. Pitney Jr., a government professor at Claremont McKenna College who once worked for House Republicans, quoting the famed U.S. community organizer. “Republicans had a successful attack in 2010. Now they’re finding that it’s hard to unite around a constructive alternative.”
For Republicans, the predicament highlights the difficulty of translating campaign idealism into governing principles, a lesson often cited by President Obama and his supporters. But conservatives who oppose compromise are adding to the Republican difficulties.
The problem was underscored last week when Republicans bowed to political realities on their signature issue of entitlement reform, acknowledging that a plan to overhaul and eventually privatize Medicare would not advance anytime soon, and would not be part of a deal with the White House to raise the government’s borrowing limit.
Democrats have attacked the Medicare proposal, and polls have shown formidable public disapproval of it. Many Republican lawmakers ran into a wall of voter opposition during a congressional spring recess.
The measure was approved in April on a party-line House vote — with no Democratic support — as part of the 2012 GOP budget written by Rep. Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.), chairman of the Budget Committee.
The vote was considered politically risky, but was held by GOP leaders in part to appease conservatives unhappy over an earlier vote on the 2011 budget. For conservatives, cuts amounting to $38 billion in 2011 were inadequate.
While House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) said the proposal to privatize Medicare remained a centerpiece of the GOP fiscal agenda, his lieutenants admitted that it had no legislative path in the face of Democratic opposition. Instead, it would remain a starting point in ongoing deficit-reduction negotiations with Democrats and the White House.
Moving away from the Medicare reforms was an example of the leadership trying to be pragmatic as it juggles the challenges of its divided majority.
“Why keep pushing something if it’s political kryptonite and it’s not going anywhere anyway?” said one GOP strategist, who asked not to be named in order to speak freely.
But not all Republicans are eager to turn down the volume on entitlement reform. Many freshman legislators were elected on promises to cut the deficit and reduce the debt, widely considered all but impossible without entitlement reform. Some continue to push the leadership to try to negotiate Medicare reforms as part of ongoing talks on how to raise the federal debt ceiling.
“We’re telling leadership, ‘No, we have to be serious about this,’” said Rep. Tim Huelskamp, a Republican from Kansas who bucked GOP leaders and voted against the 2011 spending bill. “I think there is considerable expectation that this is a bigger decision than the budget. The debt ceiling poses a bigger opportunity; this is an opportunity to put our mark on federal spending.”
Huelskamp said leaders assured members in a closed-door meeting that they were not backing off the Medicare plan. But he said he had become more skeptical of such assurances since last month, when leaders’ estimates on the effect of spending cuts came into question.
Boehner last week scrambled to present a unified front on Medicare, but even in a rare joint statement with six other GOP leaders, only a vague endorsement of the plan was offered.
“House Republicans are united in our approach to achieve real and immediate spending cuts and reforms today,” the statement said.
The focus on the Medicare plan threatened to overshadow the larger fight over stewardship of the economy, a place where many Republicans see an advantage over Obama.
The Republican challenge is “making sure this discussion is broader than simply Medicare,” said David Winston, a GOP strategist who advises House leadership.
“The White House and Democrats are hoping that they can make this not about budget or economy. They want to make it just about Medicare. They don’t want to have this broader discussion about gas prices and inflation and regulation,” he said.
Many Republicans are eager to move on to those topics. The House voted last week on oil drilling legislation in a return to the issue of rising gas prices, a top concern among voters.
“It is true that they are struggling to unite a big tent. That said, it is a common problem for any majority,” said Princeton University historian Julian Zelizer. While noting the House majority had put Obama on the defensive on spending issues, Zelizer said Medicare had backfired on Republicans.
Even if the House does tone down the effort to reform Medicare, it’s all but certain Democrats won’t make it easy. With nearly all House Republicans on record as supporting the Ryan plan, Democratic and liberal groups plan to keep up the heat through campaign season.