Republicans worry they’ll lose the House to Dems if they botch fiscal talks

There’s growing angst among Republicans that the party’s House majority could be at risk in 2014 if the deep GOP divisions that emerged during the recent “fiscal cliff” negotiations persist in looming negotiations over a slew of budgetary issues.

Even as Republican officials maintain the GOP majority is safe, several lawmakers and longtime activists warn of far-reaching political ramifications if voters perceive Republicans as botching consequential talks on the debt ceiling, sequestration and a possible government shutdown.

ADVERTISEMENT
“Majorities are elected to do things, and if they become dysfunctional, the American people will change what the majority is,” Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), a House deputy majority whip and a former National Republican Congressional Committee chairman, told The Hill.

Concerns on the right stem from a public perception that House Republicans were to blame — because of poor leadership strategy and rank-and-file dissent — for bringing the country to the edge of the fiscal cliff late last month.

Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) faced an unruly caucus during the negotiations to avoid the mandatory tax increases and spending cuts that were set to take effect at the start of the year.

Boehner failed to win the support of the GOP conference for his own “Plan B” version of a deal, forcing him to pull his legislation from the House floor before a vote. That move left Vice President Biden and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to craft an eleventh-hour agreement to prevent most tax increases and forestall major spending cuts. 

Only 19 percent of Americans approved of the job Republican leaders did on the issue, while 48 percent said they approved of Obama’s handling of the negotiations, according to a Pew Research Center poll. 

A poll by conservative-leaning Rasmussen — taken Dec. 30, at the height of the fiscal-cliff drama — showed Democrats with an 11-point lead over Republicans in the generic congressional ballot. Though the gap has narrowed this month, Rasmussen found deep dissatisfaction among GOP voters with the party’s congressional leadership: Sixty-three percent of Republican voters think it is out of touch with the base.

“Historically, Speaker Boehner and his leadership team make very good strategic decisions, but clearly their political calculus has been way off over the past several months,” said one Republican lobbyist. “If they continue to receive bad advice, Republicans could actually lose the House.”

GOP campaign officials insist that a debate occurring nearly two years before the 2014 midterms will be forgotten easily by voters and that the fundamentals of the House landscape favor Republicans. 

Indeed, redistricting shifted a majority of House districts into solid-red territory, and Republicans have more Democrats in red-leaning districts to pursue.

Democrats need to net 17 districts to take back the House in 2014, widely considered a significant hurdle to overcome. 

But the party has identified “30 districts where the [GOP] incumbent [won by] less than 10 percent and an additional 18 districts that we think can perform better” in a non-presidential election year, Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Steve Israel (D-N.Y.) said recently.

And it’s in those districts — where Republicans don’t have a deep base of voters to rely on — that a repeat disaster like the fiscal-cliff fight could matter.

Republican strategist Ford O’Connell said if Congress experiences the same sort of protracted inaction that occurred during the fiscal-cliff negotiations, the blame could fall on Republican shoulders.

“What you don’t want to see is the sort of gridlock and shutdown we had with respect to the fiscal cliff, because public opinion would turn against [House Republicans], which would likely put those swing districts at risk,” O’Connell said.

The GOP has a fine line to walk in the next few fiscal fights. It must come across as principled and willing to stand for small government, to appease the conservative flank of the base, but must also mitigate any perception that it is the “Party of No,” as Obama and Democrats have worked to label it in recent years.

Former House member and National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) Chairman Tom Davis (Va.) noted that if the GOP enters the upcoming negotiations divided on the issues, Republicans in deep-red districts will inevitably receive primary challenges. 

While there’s little chance of those deep-red districts switching hands in the coming election, Davis noted that the challenges would draw much-needed funds away from those swing districts.

“What happens is the party then spends all of its money running against Republicans. Members don’t give to the NRCC because they’ve got to defend themselves, and then in swing districts, Democrats could pick off Republicans,” he said.

Cole said that individual members should put aside worries about primary challenges and consider the bigger picture — and the harm their refusal to compromise in future budget negotiations could have on the GOP as a whole.

Both Davis and Cole said that if the House Republican caucus could stand together on a deal, current members, even those in deep-red districts, would likely be fine going into 2014.

Cole cautioned that a refusal to compromise would ultimately land the GOP a bad deal.

Many Republicans, for example, have criticized the Biden-McConnell deal for having an uneven cuts-to-revenue ratio. 

But Cole said much of the blame falls on the shoulders of those members who refused to back the caucus in negotiations. 

He said those members, particularly those unwilling to vote for Boehner’s “Plan B,” put the GOP in a difficult bargaining position going into the final deal.

“Our biggest danger is, again, when people decide that they’re going to chart their own course. That makes it impossible to bargain, and the ultimate deal gets worse,” Cole said.

ADVERTISEMENT
And if Republicans fail to achieve substantive cuts, that could undermine the party’s messaging going forward.

Daniel Scarpinato, spokesman for the NRCC, said Republicans are on the right side of the debate with respect to raising the debt ceiling and eliminating the sequester because they have focused the conversation on Democrats’ support for reckless spending.

“We are now having a debate about spending, and that’s a debate Republicans welcome. We believe we win that debate and Democrats lose it the longer they refuse to admit spending is a problem,” he said.

But if Republicans again split their caucus, and Obama has the upper hand in negotiations, the Republican Party might come out of the coming deal-making looking like the party that was unwilling to compromise and achieve any cuts.

“They haven’t yet learned what teamwork is all about, and if they don’t, they’re going to continue to damage the Republican brand and end up taking whatever the Senate and the president gives them at the end,” Davis said of House Republicans.

Davis, Cole and O’Connell all warned that Republicans must come out of their caucus retreat this week with a solid, unified bargaining plan going forward, lest they face a similarly chaotic, and ultimately unsatisfying, situation in the next round of negotiations.

“You’re going to have a better outcome being part of a team than you will by playing individually. Politics, for the most part, is a team sport,” Cole said.