WASHINGTON — A string of unrelated events are highlighting divisions among Republicans just when they'd like to show a united front and take full advantage of President Barack Obama's latest political problems.
Tensions between libertarian-leaning and more mainstream Republicans were on vivid display Tuesday as Sens. Rand Paul and John McCain clashed over Apple Inc.'s tax-avoidance strategies. Paul, a tea party favorite and son of a libertarian hero, had feuded earlier with McCain — the party's 2008 presidential nominee — over the use of unmanned aircraft to kill suspected terrorists.
Meanwhile, an immigration plan that's backed by Obama and many establishment Republicans appears closer to a showdown with wary House conservatives. And Oklahoma's deadly tornado threatened to reopen a painful intra-GOP debate over the wisdom of borrowing money to help storm victims.
All political parties have their divisions, of course. It's possible the controversies dogging the White House will play a much bigger role in next year's elections than will Republican disagreements.
Moreover, mainstream and tea party Republicans joined forces in 2010 — the last midterm election — to lift the party to huge congressional and gubernatorial victories. It's entirely possible they will do it again next year.
But the rise of nonestablishment Republicans, such as Paul of Kentucky and Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, underlines the party's continued struggle to resolve basic philosophical differences after losing four of the last six presidential elections.
Paul is drawing national attention, having made a major speech to Iowa Republicans and visiting other early primary states as he weighs a presidential run. He renewed his advocacy of libertarian principles Tuesday at a Senate hearing into Apple's multinational strategies to avoid paying billions of dollars in U.S. taxes.
Most senators either rebuked Apple or at least questioned its tactics. McCain said: "For years, Apple has opted to forgo fully contributing to the U.S. Treasury and to American society by shifting profits and circumventing U.S. taxes. In the last four years alone, Apple has avoided paying taxes on $44 billion in income."
Paul took a strikingly different view. "I'm offended by a $4 trillion government bullying, berating and badgering one of America's greatest success stories," he said. "The Congress should be on trial here for creating a Byzantine and bizarre tax code."
Republicans typically portray themselves as the low-tax or anti-tax party. A serious Paul bid for president, however, could push that argument to levels that might help Democrats paint Republicans as champions of tax evaders.
Also on Tuesday, a high-stakes immigration bill moved closer to a Senate vote. Obama and other Democrats have long sought a way to bring millions of immigrants living here illegally out of the shadows. The Republican establishment backs the idea in hopes of starting to heal the GOP's poor standing with Hispanic voters, a fast-growing group.
It's unclear whether the Republican-run House will embrace the Senate proposal, which would create a pathway to citizenship for many who entered the country illegally.
"There's no bill I've seen that I can support," Rep. Kenny Marchant, R-Texas, said in an interview Tuesday. When his constituents hear explanations of the proposed pathway to citizenship, he said, "they omit that paragraph and pencil in 'amnesty.'"
Even if Congress passes an immigration overhaul, opponents' remarks in the upcoming Senate and House debates could offer sound bites and video clips that Democrats can use to depict Republicans as hostile to Hispanics.
Monday's devastating tornado near Oklahoma City prompted widespread expressions of sadness and condolences in Congress. But it also was a reminder of tensions among Republicans regarding disaster relief and deficit spending.
After sometimes fierce debate, most House Republicans voted in January against a $50.5 billion bill that primarily helped victims of Superstorm Sandy. The bill passed with mostly Democratic support.
Republican opponents noted that the bill included non-Sandy spending items, and it added to the federal deficit because, like most disaster relief measures, it was not offset by spending cuts elsewhere. Those arguments infuriated some Republicans, including Rep. Peter King of New York. He said Congress has a long tradition of helping disaster victims without demanding it be paid for immediately.
The debate threatened to resurface Tuesday, although it's possible that current disaster funds can handle Oklahoma's needs without new congressional appropriations.
GOP Rep. Tom Cole, who lives in the hard-hit town of Moore, Okla., told National Public Radio his state will need federal help and he's proud he voted for the Sandy relief bill.
Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., differed on the Sandy bill and took a defensive stance. His office said "if an additional emergency aid package is necessary," Coburn will not change his long-held view that "supplemental bills should be paid for by reducing spending on less vital priorities."
More divisive issues may be heading toward the Republican caucus. Rep. Trent Franks, R-Ariz., plans to introduce a bill to ban abortions nationwide after 20 weeks of pregnancy.
Planned Parenthood called the proposal outrageous, adding, "Voters and the courts agree that decisions about a woman's pregnancy are not for an Arizona congressman or any other politician to make."
Anti-abortion initiatives are generally popular with the GOP's stalwart supporters. Whether they hinder efforts to reach crucial independent voters, however, is a question that worries campaign consultants eager to find a formula for electing Republican presidents.
Follow Charles Babington on Twitter: https://twitter.com/cbabington .
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