The Republican Party is having an identity crisis.
Donald TrumpDonald TrumpPence: Trump campaign discussing 'internally' how to handle media Hillary Clinton trumps Trump in convention speech Classified briefings to begin for Clinton, Trump MORE and other outsiders are thumping establishment candidates in the GOP presidential primary. Conservative rebels on Capitol Hill forced Speaker John BoehnerJohn BoehnerDem drops out of race for Boehner's old seat Conservative allies on opposite sides in GOP primary fight Clinton maps out first 100 days MORE (R-Ohio) into retirement. And this week, the rebels claimed the scalp of BoehnerJohn BoehnerDem drops out of race for Boehner's old seat Conservative allies on opposite sides in GOP primary fight Clinton maps out first 100 days MORE's top deputy, Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), who bowed out of the race for Speaker after they issued harsh demands of him.
“We're going through a hell of a lot of turbulence right now, and I think our party has to make a determination: Do we want to govern or do we want to protest?” said Rep. Charlie Dent (R-Pa.), a leader of the centrist GOP caucus known as the Tuesday Group.
The intraparty warfare playing out on the presidential campaign trail and on the Hill reflects deep-seated frustration. Republicans hold both chambers of Congress, yet have been unable to advance a conservative agenda with a Democrat still in the White House.
“Congress is representative of the American psyche. Right now, we're dysfunctional. America’s dysfunctional,” said Rep. Dennis Ross (R-Fla.), a backer of Jeb Bush’s presidential bid who had been running for majority whip until McCarthy’s stunning implosion.
“Trump is gaining in the polls with more negative behavior, but the American people are clinging to that because they want to see some type of leadership,” Ross added. “Unfortunately we're not seeing positive leadership.”
On Capitol Hill, much of the fight boils down to tactics. The House Freedom Caucus, a bloc of roughly 40 conservative rebels, wants to fight for sweeping change like the repeal of ObamaCare, the end of Planned Parenthood funding and the abolishment of the Export-Import Bank.
Many of Boehner’s allies in the House want to play small ball, strategically passing packages of bills that could clear the 60-vote threshold in the Senate and make it to President Obama’s desk. Many of the Freedom Caucus’s ideas couldn’t overcome a Democratic-led filibuster in the upper chamber, the allies contend.
“We all have a fairly common vision,” said Republican Study Committee Chairman Bill FloresBill FloresMoulitsas: Stuck with Trump Top conservative calls for 'less trash talk' from Trump GOP fears next Trump blowup MORE (R-Texas), who’s mulling a bid for Speaker. “Sometimes we have disagreement on how you get there.”
But pursuing a politically unrealistic agenda is harming the GOP’s chances to take back the White House in 2016, some Republicans argue.
“We've been given a historic opportunity with a historic majority in the House and Senate,” said Rep. Martha McSally (R-Ariz.), who represents a swing district that sits on the border with Mexico. “The American people are looking for us to govern. They feel like they just gave more power to Republicans, and they are waiting to see if we are going to be good stewards of that.”
With McCarthy making an unexpected exit from the Speaker’s race, all eyes turned to popular Ways and Means Chairman Paul RyanPaul RyanClassified briefings to begin for Clinton, Trump Paul Ryan rewrites 50 years of poverty history Peter Thiel does not make the GOP pro-gay MORE (R-Wis.), seen by many as the only one with the gravitas, experience and communication skills to bring together the fractured 247-member conference.
But several Republicans warned that the party needed to get its house in order before installing another Speaker. Boehner has vowed to stay on until a successor is elected.
"We've got to do some introspection in regards to what we want and what's realistic in terms of what a Speaker can deliver," said Rep. Richard Nugent (R-Fla.), a former sheriff who’s clashed with Boehner in the past. "Until that's resolved, rushing into just having another vote, I think, is a mistake."
Both Nugent and Ross were swept into office in the 2010 Tea Party wave that handed the GOP control of the House and elected a bumper crop of deficit-slashing rabble rousers. The party is still going through growing pains half a decade later, Ross said.
The cycle usually plays out like this: Facing a fast-approaching deadline, GOP leaders try to find a common solution with conservatives; the caucus splinters, leaders are forced to cut a deal with Democrats, and the hard right erupts.
Now, House Republicans are left wondering whether they change the way they do business — in a way that allows for disagreement, while giving every member a chance to be heard.
"With all due respect to Paul [Ryan] … we're setting the next Speaker up for failure if we don't have a consensus process in place," Ross said.
To many Freedom Caucus members, real change would look like this: ending the culture of punishment for those who don’t toe the line, barring GOP leaders from supporting primary challenges to sitting members, allowing more input about who gets committee gavels, and bringing more bills to the floor.
“If you follow the rules, take power away from the few people at the top, and give it to the members,” said Freedom Caucus Chairman Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), “you’ve got a lot better chance of accomplishing what we told the voters we were going to do.”
But GOP moderates, who feel like their voices are being drowned out by a vocal minority, are skeptical there are process fixes that can heal the party divisions.
"When you're’ dealing with 240 plus voices, how does every voice get heard on every issue to their satisfaction?" asked Rep. Pat Meehan (R-Pa.).