Sequester 2013: Why It's Killing the GOP

The warring factions in the Republican Party appear to have called a temporary truce. Tea Party-backed Senator Ted Cruz (R–Texas) has formed a tenuous alliance with national defense conservative Senators John McCain (R–Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (R–S.C.) to challenge the confirmation of Chuck Hagel for secretary of defense.

Still, it is not an easy truce. McCain came to Hagel's defense when Cruz appeared to be attacking his patriotism and integrity without evidence. Of the attack, McCain stated, “No one on this committee should impugn his integrity.” McCain’s rebuff of Cruz’ spurious allegation is a small indication of how this battle will play out: The battle for control of the GOP is going to come down to the fiscal conservatives who want to cut spending and the national defense conservatives who want to protect the defense budget.

The Tea Party wants control of the GOP, and they are not going to rest until they wrest control from the establishment wing of the Republican Party. Every day it appears as if the battle for control of the GOP grows fiercer, and the divide between the warring factions grows wider.

McCain's admonishment was just the lastest example of the rift within the GOP. Karl Rove has already formed an organization, the Conservative Victory Project, whose mission is to vet potential candidates and ensure their electability. Some conservatives in the party view this as an attempt by Rove and establishment Republicans to maintain control of the party, and a direct attack on Tea Party Republicans. Matt Kibbe, president of Freedomworks, said, “This is a little bit like gang warfare right now.” On Fox News Sunday, Bob Woodward told Rove he was trying to set up a “politburo,” i.e. an executive committee for the GOP responsible for the selection of candidates vying for national election.

The GOP divide will come to a head over the next few weeks as the looming threat of sequester cuts threatens the defense budget. McCain and Graham will be pitted against Tea Party fiscal conservatives like Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.) who is already on the record for recommending larger cuts than that proposed by sequestration.

During his Tea Party response to President Obama’s State of the Union address, Paul noted, “Not only should the sequester stand, many pundits say the sequester really needs to be at least $4 trillion to avoid another downgrade of America’s credit rating.” Additional cuts in spending will almost certainly include additional cuts to the defense budget.

For his part, McCain has come out squarely in opposition to sequestration, particularly as it impacts and affects the defense budget. In an interview with Fox News, McCain said, “We've got to avoid it, we've got to stop it. The men and women in the military deserve better than what we're giving them.” That puts the two people most representative of the factions in the GOP in opposite corners.

The rift in the GOP is exacerbated by the lack of a national leader.

McCain is the only GOP presidential candidate still involved in national politics. The Bushes have essentially retired, and Mitt Romney has disappeared since his embarrassing loss in 2012. Even Paul Ryan (R–Wisc.) has been relatively quiet since his vice presidential run on the Romney ticket. Absent any leadership, the GOP has an open audition for the next national figure.

Currently, the establishment seems comfortable with Senator Marco Rubio (R-Fla.). Rubio has the Tea Party credentials to bridge the gap between the warring factions. However, Paul is making an aggressive move to assert himself and command the national spotlight, while Cruz appears to want to be more than a freshman senator.

The battle over the defense budget could determine the winner. If the sequester holds and the defense budget is slashed, expect the Tea Party Republicans to declare victory and move aggressively to solidify their victory by going after establishment neo-cons during the next congressional run. If the neo-cons like Graham and McCain are victorious, then that will prove that the national defense conservatives still have a horse in this race. As Molly Ball of The Atlantic writes, “Once harmonious, the fiscal conservatives and national defense conservatives now find themselves at odds as their priorities clash.”

For now the two factions are uncomfortable bedfellows, but that could change as soon as the sequester talks resume later this month.

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