08/05/2013 09:48 am ET Updated Oct 05, 2013

GOP Civil War: House Republicans Have Already Started to Break

Last week I wrote about the coming budget standoff between obstructionist Republicans and President Obama, and called on him to stand firm. If he does so, as Bill Clinton did during the last major government shut down, Obama may well be able to break the logjam and get Congress moving again. In the process, I argued, he might even be able to break the House Republican caucus, if the couple of dozen not insane Republicans decide to come to a compromise with Democrats and, you know, govern, rather than go over the cliff and into the ravine with the Tea Party types.

In recent days, a few things have happened that suggest that the Republican caucus in the House may have already begun to break. We are seeing Republicans in the House as well as the Senate speak out against extremist proposals on government spending levels. What exactly do the extremists propose? First, there's the budget itself. On Sept. 30, unless a new budget or a stopgap continuing resolution (CR) is passed, current government funding expires, i.e., the government would shut down. Some right-wing extremists, i.e., the House Republican caucus, have proposed that next year's budget should cut far deeper from even current levels (mandated by the sequester) in just about every area other than defense, which they want to increase.

Beyond their outrageous demands on the budget itself, there's the push by the extreme extremists (!) to defund Obamacare. About a dozen (the number keeps shifting as senators sign and then try to take their signatures back) Republican senators signed on to a letter to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV): "informing Senator Reid that we will not vote for a continuing resolution that funds Obamacare." Out front in this effort to defund Obamacare are Sens. Mike Lee (R-UT), Marco Rubio (R-FL) (who said doing so is more important than enacting the immigration reform effort he helped lead) and, of course, "Calgary Ted" Cruz (R-TX). Other signatories include James Risch (ID), Rand Paul (KY), James Inhofe (OK), David Vitter (LA), John Thune (SD), Jeff Chiesa (NJ), Mike Enzi (WY), Deb Fischer (NE) and Chuck Grassley (IA). Similarly, in the House, 60 Republicans have penned a letter urging the House leadership to use "any relevant appropriations bill brought to the House floor in the 113th Congress, including any continuing appropriations bill" as a vehicle to defund Obamacare, although it does not threaten a shutdown over the matter.

Only a dozen (out of 46) right-wing senators signing on to something is a sign of one thing for sure: It will not succeed. Another sign is the litany of comments from other Republicans making clear just how absurd and extreme the idea is. Here's what Sen. Richard Burr (R-NC) had to say:

"I think it's the dumbest idea I've ever heard of... Listen, as long as Barack Obama is president, the Affordable Care Act is going to be law."

"I was around in '95. I think some of these guys need to understand, you shut down the federal government, you better have a specific reason to do it that's achievable. Defunding the Affordable Care Act is not achievable through shutting down the federal government."

That second part is key, I'll return to it later in the post.

Here"s Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN):

"Oh, I think it's a silly effort....I don't look at that as very courageous."

And the House Deputy Whip, Rep. Tom Cole (R-OK), was equally critical of the threat to shut down the government over defunding Obamacare:

"Shutting down the government is a suicidal political tactic. Eventually it will be reopened, but the president will not have capitulated and you will have discredited yourself and along the way you will have hurt the American people."

Leading conservative columnists have also criticized the effort, with Ramesh Ponnuru (senior editor at the conservative National Review but writing at Bloomberg) predicting a harsh "backlash" against Republicans if they hold to it and force a government shutdown. In fact, a couple of days ago, Cruz and Paul essentially admitted defeat, acknowledging that Republican senators just don't support their extremist plan to defund Obamacare. Rush Limbaugh lamented that "the Republican leadership isn't conservative" and called their strategy "capitulation" to the president.

In addition to the budget demands, and the "plan" to use the budget to defund Obamacare, there's a part three in the trilogy of Republican extremism: the debt ceiling. Sometime in the fall, the government will need to borrow more money. In the last clash over the debt ceiling a couple of years ago, we ended up with the sequester, as part of a deal about which House Speaker Rep. John Boehner (R-OH) said: "I got 98 percent of what I wanted. I'm pretty happy."

Now, there's noise that Republicans, particularly in the House, are again planning to use the debt ceiling as a way to extract even more cuts in domestic spending--beyond those mandated by the sequester. Here's that man Boehner again, who said, "we're not going to raise the debt ceiling without real cuts in spending. It's as simple as that." However, it appears that enough senators on the GOP side are simply not going down that road again. Boehner will not be able to pull off a repeat.

The votes on the debt ceiling, Obamacare, and continuing resolutions are all in the (near) future. But earlier this week we saw the Republican caucus openly fracture on the House floor, a foreboding (for them) indication of what is to come if they don't pull back from the brink. Republicans were unable to pass a bill funding the Transportation and Housing & Urban Development (THUD) departments. The House rejected a bill that sought to cut those departments in line with the budget -- authored by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) -- that it had passed earlier this year.

The THUD bill came out of a committee chaired by Rep. Tom Lathan of Iowa. Latham, in reaction to the House leadership pulling the bill (rather than trying to make changes and round up a majority willing to pass it), exclaimed to Boehner and others in attendance: "This is bullshit."

Rep. Hal Rogers (R-KY), chair of the powerful Appropriations Committee that stands at the center of the budget process, had this to say:

"With this action, the House has declined to proceed on the implementation of the very budget it adopted just three months ago. Thus, I believe that the House has made its choice: sequestration -- and its unrealistic and ill-conceived discretionary cuts -- must be brought to an end."

John McCain, who has recently emerged as a leader of the not insane Republican Senate caucus, said the sequester itself has to go, and referred to his vote in favor of the sequester as "the worst vote I have cast in many years."

And there you have it. House Republicans are beginning to fracture. They can't even hold to their own budget, the Paul Ryan budget, because the cuts are just too severe for some of them, and not severe enough for the most wacky of the wackadoo, according to Politico.

Over in the Senate, Republicans filibustered a more generous version of the THUD package, one supported by moderate Susan Collins (R-ME). She characterized the unwillingness of Republicans to ease the cuts mandated by the sequester as "absurd," and added that the leaders of her party can't acknowledge that fact: "I truly don't know the path forward. I truly don't... Maybe there will be a grand bargain that will replace all this."

When USA Today -- as down-the-middle a newspaper as they come -- is running "Republicans in Disarray" stories, you know it's real.

The Republican Express is like a train barreling forward with a dozen different drivers all brawling over who gets the controls. In fact, Republicans polled by Pew literally have no idea who the leader of their party is.
The extremists are willing to shut down the government over one of any number of issues. This tactical approach fits with the general Tea Party idea that most of what government does really isn't necessary to begin with. But we are seeing pushback against these tactics, as seen above. At least some Republicans remember whom the American public blamed during the government shutdown of the mid-1990s (hint: it wasn't Bill Clinton).

Our side needs to remember that two things are required to defeat the Republican extremists. The second is the willingness of the not insane Republicans to vote with Democrats to get something done. But the first, the prerequisite, is that Democrats -- in particular President Obama -- must hold the line. He must not negotiate with himself. Any budget agreement the president makes must reasonably reflect Democratic priorities. It must be a real compromise, not "98 percent" of what Republicans demand. And he must not negotiate at all over the debt ceiling or Obamacare. You can't offer concessions in order to induce the other side to stop being absurd.

Finally, if Republicans refuse to be reasonable, the president must tell them, simply, no. His history of being reasonable, of compromising, is something that Americans do remember. It will be obvious to them which side is the more extreme, and thus deserving of blame if push comes to shove.

If Republicans are willing to shut down the government to get what they want -- despite having lost the 2012 elections -- Barack Obama must reply: "Please, proceed."

If events play out along these lines, the Republican House majority will shatter. And nothing would do more to make our government function properly once again.