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Tea party overreach splitting GOP

Updated: November 16, 2013 6:11AM

For most of the current Washington government shutdown crisis, the White House and congressional Democrats demanded the Republican-controlled House pass “clean” bills — meaning no other legislation attached to them — to fund the government and extend the debt ceiling. But this weekend Senate Democrats insisted any bill to reopen government include relief from previously approved automatic budget cuts. Who was threatening to hold Washington hostage for partisan gain now?

By Monday afternoon it appeared that Democrats realized the government shutdown had handed them a sweet political victory that they shouldn’t endanger with a spending-increase demand Republicans would have no choice but to reject.

House Republicans, dragooned into a no-win crusade to defund Obamacare by tea party legislators egged on by Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, overplayed their hand in a way that’s clearly damaged the GOP with the public. The debacle has had the perverse effect of actually raising poll numbers for the health-insurance law at the same time that its rollout has been a public-relations disaster.

The automatic sequester budget cuts achieved during a 2011 debt-ceiling fight — the most successful measure reducing government spending in modern history — were even on the table.

Yet the tea party base applauded Cruz’s effort, as evidenced by the Value Voter Summit in Washington. Apparently shaking up things in the nation’s capital is a goal worthy of praise even if it fails to achieve its goals in a spectacular defeat, alienates independent voters, strengthens the political hand of President Barack Obama and Democrats, and could generate a ballot-box backlash putting Democrats in complete control of Congress in the 2014 elections.

All this was predictable and predicted. I wasn’t alone in forecasting a few weeks ago that the demand to defund Obama’s signature legislation “was sure to fail” and was a political miscalculation that was cause for the White House to “be chortling.”

The Republicans’ best hope was that Democrats eager to inflict a humiliating defeat on the GOP would themselves overreach. We saw the public revulsion over the Pentagon’s refusal for several days to pay death benefits to the families of the fallen in Afghanistan despite the clear intent of Congress that they get the aid. The closing of open spaces such as the World War II memorial in Washington made it clear the administration was determined to impose the most pain possible on the public. Obama’s refusal to negotiate with Republicans appeared uncompromising to those who remembered his 2008 campaign promise to bridge the partisan divide in Washington.

The shutdown misery likely will recede from the public’s mind if a deal is reached before Thursday’s deadline for a possible government default. What might not fade will be bitterness between GOP moderates and the tea party faction. Mainstream Republicans feel they’ve been led down the primrose path to calamity. The tea party thinks moderates abandoned the fight to kill Obamacare. No one knows how lasting the raw feelings will be. One thing is clear: The conservative agenda won’t be helped by a bitter split in the GOP.


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