By Erik Wasson and Russell Berman - 09/15/12 10:00 AM EDT
Splits within the House Republican conference were on prominent display this week, but members shrugged off suggestions that they are presenting a divided front that could hurt the party in the November elections.
They expressed confidence in polls that show they will keep control of the House, and said the party would unify around a set of policies once ballots are cast.
But there was no denying that that House Republicans exhibited an unusual amount of in-fighting this week, as members found themselves at odds on questions of spending, entitlements and foreign policy.
Meanwhile, an effort by some House conservatives to defund aid to Libya and Egypt in the wake of the violent protests was met with opposition from other Republican foreign policy hands, who said it would be counterproductive.
Another rift appeared when rural Republicans demanded leaders bring a five-year farm bill to the floor despite opposition from Tea Party activists to new spending on the farm safety net and food stamps. Some have even signed a discharge petition to force the hand of Republican leaders.
A rare division even emerged among appropriators. Four sub-committee chairmen, known as cardinals, voted against the stopgap spending bill in a rare show of defiance against Appropriations Chairman Hal Rogers (R-Ky.)
Democrats were eager to highlight the GOP splits on Friday.
The chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, Rep. Steve Israel (N.Y.), said his party would try to take advantage of “Republican chaos.”
“We are going to exploit Republican chaos, for their inability to get the job done, for their political extremism, and for constantly failing to deliver what the American people want, whether it’s a budget or a farm bill,” Israel said.
“From funding our government to passing a highway bill, House Republicans have been divided on critical issues throughout this Congress, and this week has been no different,” Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said in an emailed statement.
Republicans said the divisions resulted from unique circumstances and arguments about tactics, and argued the election would be about bigger choices.
Appropriations committee cardinal Rep. Jo Ann Emerson (R-Mo.) said she voted against the six-month continuing resolution (CR), in part, to send a message about the farm bill.
“The farm bill needs to come to the floor and I am furious about that,” she said, adding that she also voted no because of all the work she did on a financial services appropriations bill to cut spending.
“In this particular case, I needed to be able to send a message,” she said.
Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho), another cardinal who voted “no” on the continuing resolution, said the leadership’s acquiescence to a catchall spending bill meant appropriators had wasted months drafting bills and sending them through the committee.
“We need to do our job. We need to do our appropriation bills,” he said. “We’ve got them all through the committee, and there’s no reason to do a six-month CR in my opinion. Obviously leadership felt differently.”
“Basically Harry Reid got what he wanted,” Simpson said.
Rogers said members felt free to vote against the spending bill because they knew Democrats would put the bill over the top.
“People voted for various reasons, which is OK by me,” he said. “I think they saw we had plenty of votes on the other side of the fence so it was sort of a free vote for them.”
He said that despite the differences on this week’s bill, the GOP’s main election message has not been compromised.
“It’s [about] fiscal integrity, the need to tackle the debt and deficit,” he said. “I think we are the adults in all of this.”
Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.) said he is not worried about the election, but wants to see more unity in the party once the campaign is through.
“The one thing that is certain is who is going to run the House after the election. It’s still going to be Speaker Boehner,” he said. “The CR doesn’t mean a great deal because most people knew there were going to be a ton of Democrats on it.”
“I do think fundamentally on the other side of this election, our caucus needs to be a lot more unified. It needs to be more unified if [GOP nominee Mitt] Romney wins so we can move his program … or if, heaven forbid, the president might win reelection and we need to be extremely unified to give Speaker Boehner the strongest negotiating hand,” he said.
“I think we are getting better at this, but we have a ways to go toward giving our own leadership team the tools they need to bargain on our behalf,” Cole added.
Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), the head of the conservative Republican Study Committee, voted against the spending bill but denied that leadership support for the higher spending level clouded the party’s fiscal message.
“The vote yesterday was an understanding that we are seven and half weeks before a huge election and we are not going to have a debate about a possible government shutdown. That’s all that was,” he said.
Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-Kan.), a Tea Party-backed member who supported the CR despite the $8 billion increase in spending, said the party’s message is rock solid.
“The difference between these two parties on each of these parties on spending and on whether farmers and livestock folks will be able to continue to run their small businesses could not be more different,” he said.
He dismissed a new threat by the Tea Party Patriots to punish members who voted for the spending bill.
“I think people in the Tea Party will come out in the election. To vote to support people who will support Nancy Pelosi as Speaker, will not move this country forward,” he said.
“The CR passed. You are not going to get everybody [on board],” said Rep. Allen West (R-Fla.), who voted for the six-month bill.
“I think the party will always have a united message. That is based on limited government, fiscal responsibility, individual sovereignty and free markets,” West said.
“I think we are on the same sheet of music,” he added.
Kevin Smith, a spokesman for Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), rejected Democrats’ assertion that intra-party tensions would hurt Republicans in the election.
“Our members are concerned about the American people’s No. 1 concern, and that is jobs,” he said, “We have a strong record to run on when it comes to producing more than 30 bills that will create jobs and help the economy. That’s a lot more than I can say about President Obama’s failed stewardship of the economy.”
Simpson said that Democrats were hardly in a position to make an issue of GOP divisions.
“It’s hard for them to exploit it when the Senate isn’t doing anything,” said Simpson, who also voiced his displeasure at the lack of a farm bill. “[Democrats] will blame us for not doing a farm bill and they did a farm bill. The reality is that Congress as a whole needs to do its job, both Republicans and Democrats. But to say the House hasn’t done anything? Look at what the Senate’s done.”