Republican fight on U.S. shutdown shows simmering civil war

Heidi Przybyla and Julie Hirschfeld Davis

Published: Monday, Sept. 30 2013 12:00 a.m. MDT

FILE - In this June 28, 2012, file photo Tea Party supporter William Temple of Brunswick, Ga., protests against President Barack Obama's health care law outside the Supreme Court in Washington.

David Goldman, Associated Press

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WASHINGTON — The Republican war with President Obama over funding the government and the new health-care law will play out in the coming days and months. The conflict now exposed within the party may shape its future for years.

An intraparty tug-of-war, largely confined to campaign primaries during the past three years, is exposed on the national stage as Republicans challenge one another on tactics as a government shutdown looms, coming as early as Tuesday.

"The circus created the past few days isn't reflective of mainstream Republicans — it projects an image of not being reasonable. The vast majority of Republicans are pretty level- headed and are here to govern," said Representative Michael Grimm, a New York Republican.

"This is a moment in history for our party to, once and for all, put everything on the table. But at some point we're going to come together and unify," Grimm said. The "far-right faction" of the party "represents 15 percent of the country, but they're trying to control the entire debate."

It's a civil war that has beset the party before, as base activists grow impatient with established leaders they claim have grown complacent in the anti-government fight. The results can be unpredictable, perhaps more so this time given that it's taking place 13 months before the next election.

The rise of Barry Goldwater in 1964 as the Republican presidential nominee ended in the landslide election of Democratic President Lyndon Johnson. The revolt led by Newt Gingrich, then a Georgia congressman, culminated in the 1994 Republican House takeover after 40 years in the minority.

Gingrich, who became House speaker, and his majority prompted the 1995-96 partial government shutdowns, which dimmed the party's approval ratings and fueled the re-election of President Bill Clinton.

"This is a battle that has been under way slowly since 2010 and is now coming to a head," said David Redlawsk, a political science professor at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J. "This is part of a bigger question about what that party is going to be. That may have major repercussions in another year."

The fight in Congress today is between members who want to avoid that fate of Gingrich's majority and those convinced conditions have changed to their advantage.

"I've been elected to fight for the people back home, wherever that takes us," said Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C. "We're united in our efforts to do all we can to avert a shutdown. We're trying to offer a compromise." Meadows said health-care law "is not ready for prime time."

The tactics of a group of Republicans are causing angst among some established party leaders and fundraisers who worry that the infighting is obscuring what could otherwise be a winning political moment.

"I fully understand where the tea party and like-minded people are coming from, that Obamacare is a tragically flawed law and it's not good for the country, but I would also have to add that shutting down the government is not a good for the country," said Fred Malek, a Republican fundraiser.

"At a time politically where Obama is in a very weak position resulting from his handling of the situation in Syria, the economic situation, and the implementation of a health-care law that is going to be really rocky, we're basically going in and seizing defeat from the jaws of victory politically," he said. "You've got a flawed law that's bad for the country being met with a flawed approach that is also very bad for the country, and I don't think it's good politically or substantively."

Sal Russo, chief strategist of the Sacramento, Calif.-based Tea Party Express, a political action committee that advocates smaller government, said the episode in Washington pleases movement activists.

"There was a lot of frustration that Republicans weren't doing anything," he said. "This is going to encourage them to do more."

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