The logic of House GOP intransigence
The unruly House Republicans who spurned Speaker John Boehner as the country flirts with fiscal havoc might've seemed like they were doing their best "Lord of the Flies" rendition.
But last week's mayhem had a certain logic -- the logic of politicians wanting to keep their jobs.
In the staunchly conservative districts that most House Republicans inhabit, playing ball with President Barack Obama on taxes and the debt means tempting a primary opponent in the next election. The threat of a challenge from the left that might come from digging in, on the other hand, is almost nonexistent for most members.
As a matter of pure political self-interest, the post-election debate within the GOP about how to broaden the party's appeal and avoid another Romney-esque debacle in four years is irrelevant in this quarter of GOP politics. For the overwhelming majority of House Republicans, the largely white, resolutely conservative electorate that Mitt Romney relied on -- excessively, as it turned out -- is all they need to ensure reelection.
That inescapable fact could be the single biggest obstacle to Obama's second-term agenda. The same dynamic will undoubtedly apply when it comes to immigration reform, guns or energy. Forget breaking filibusters in the Senate; the House Republican Conference is what will keep Obama awake at night at least for the next two years.
The numbers tell the story. According to the Cook Political Report, the widely respected political handicapper, just six Republicans - around 3 percent of the House GOP Conference -- will occupy districts whose overall voter makeup favors Democrats. That figure is down from 22 Republicans that resided in such Democrat-friendly districts in 2012.
That unusually high number of House Republicans occupying deeply red districts has intensified the fear of a primary -- not general -- election threat. And that means no deals with a president, who in most cases, lost those members' districts resoundingly.
The phenomenon isn't new. For decades, many Republicans -- and for that matter Democrats -- have found themselves locked into districts where they're beholden to their party's electorate. But it will be heightened in 2014.
One of the Republicans in a deeply conservative district, South Carolina Rep. Jeff Duncan, said he has no doubt the voters he represents want him to oppose higher taxes as part of any fiscal cliff deal.
"I believe if you do what you said you were going to do, if you vote with integrity, if you do what you told voters you were going to do, reelection will take care of itself," he said. "People who have contacted me are asking me to stand firm on what really matters, which is the spending side of the equation."
The polarization was exacerbated by the just completed, once-a-decade redistricting process. Both parties -- but particularly Republicans, who swept control of statehouses across the country in the 2010 conservative wave -- redrew district lines to shore up House members politically.
When all was said and done, 109 Republican seats and 67 Democratic seats were made safer.
But House watchers say it's also owed to three consecutive wave elections from 2006 and 2010, which had the effect of sweeping out moderate members from both parties who occupied swing districts. When the next Congress convenes in January, it will contain just a handful of Northeast Republicans. The ranks of conservative Blue Dog Democrats, meanwhile, have been decimated to just over a dozen members -- down from more than 50 in 2008.
The polarization isn't just limited to the Republican side of the aisle. Just 18 Democrats will occupy Republican-friendly seats, down from 20 in the 112th Congress, according to the Cook Political Report.
"The House is well-aligned right now," said Brock McCleary, outgoing National Republican Congressional Committee deputy executive director and founder of the survey firm Harper Polling. "As of today, it's kind of a parliamentary body."
For Obama, the Republican dynamic threatens to derail an ambitious second-term agenda that will shape his legacy. The president will have to expend much of his energy over the next two years -- if not the remainder of his time in office -- working with a Republican speaker to pass laws that bear his imprint.
Democrats are ready to cast House Republicans as intransigent and beholden to the conservative wing of their party, and say they will make that message a central theme heading toward the midterm elections.
"It makes it impossible for them to govern," said Kelly Ward, incoming executive director of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. "A lot of these [Republicans] are now worried about primaries. Not only do they not want to campaign on these issues, but in a primary they will actually get credibility from the tea party and Republican primary voters to stand their ground and not give in to leadership. It's almost in their benefit to be that way."
Some Republicans say the shift sets up a volatile 2014 primary season, and that GOP members across the country will come under scrutiny over how closely their voting records align with conservative orthodoxy.
For Republican members -- many of whom were propelled into office by the tea party uprising of 2010 -- the next two years could become a race to determine who has the sharpest rhetoric in opposition to the president's policies.
Chris Chocola, president of the Club for Growth, an anti-tax group that frequently backs Republican challengers against incumbents, said the coming primary season would focus heavily on the fiscal cliff and debt ceiling debates. Both issues, he said, are critical to conservative voters.
Last week, Chocola's group waged a high-profile campaign to urge Republicans to oppose Boehner's Plan B, which proposed raising tax rates on millionaires to address the debt ceiling and deny Obama a key talking point. The speaker ultimately scrapped the bill before it came to the floor because it lacked the votes to pass.
"The greatest motivator for a member of Congress is to keep their job, and I think primaries have become a bigger concern over the last two cycles," Chocola said. "If a district is worried about raising taxes, the member is going to take note of it."
Still, some question whether Republicans may be oversensitive to the potential political fallout from voting to raise taxes. Last week, Harper Polling surveyed Republican voters on whether a candidate who signs a no-tax pledge, such as the one advocated by conservative activist Grover Norquist, should ever violate that pledge. A less-than-overwhelming 47 percent said the pledge should be followed.
McCleary, who oversaw the poll, said the results illustrated there are also political risks for Republicans who appear overly intransigent.
"You run either risk," he said, "not compromising or violating the pledge."