WASHINGTON, D.C. — When Republicans left Capitol Hill right before Columbus Day, they hoped a little break would help cool tensions ripping their party apart and threatening their governing majority.
So much for that.
After a week-long recess, Republicans returning to Washington on Monday are growing anxious as Rep. Paul Ryan is putting off a decision on whether to run for House speaker.
Meanwhile, leading Republicans are downright furious at Rep. Richard Hanna’s comments suggesting the Benghazi committee was aimed at hurting Hillary Clinton, who testifies on Thursday.
And fiscal talks between congressional Republicans and the White House have yielded little progress so far, meaning that House and Senate leaders are likely to move a debt ceiling increase separately from a large fiscal package — and prompt a revolt from their party’s right wing.
The toxic mix comes at a dangerous time for Republicans. They are trying to showcase that their party can present a vision for governing and a clear message ahead of 2016. But major fiscal calamities, including the prospects of the first-ever U.S. debt default and the second government shutdown in as many years, could send Washington — and their party — reeling.
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Kentucky, a contender for the presidential nomination, said in an interview with CNN that now is the time to dig in and battle the president on issues like government spending and default — and show conservative voters that the party is willing to fight for its principles, even if it means a potential shutdown.
“I’ve been arguing for more exertion of the power of the purse,” Paul said. “I think the only way to do that — to exactly use your leverage — is to let all the spending expire.”
But the disarray in the GOP — particularly the leadership vacuum in the House — has spawned fears among some that Republicans must get their house in order before the problems become much more widespread heading into 2016.
“It’s true that nobody in America is inspired by all this drama and palace intrigue,” Rep. Luke Messer, R-Indiana, said. “It’s also true that we better get ourselves together so that this doesn’t happen multiple times over the next year and half.”
GOP leadership turmoil
As Congress reconvenes this week, all eyes will be on Ryan, especially Wednesday when the GOP holds two closed-door conference meetings to discuss the party’s future. To alleviate pressures on the next speaker, Republicans are hoping to placate the party’s right wing by giving more power to the rank-and-file, including by putting more Republicans elected since the 2010 elections at the leadership table — a proposal championed by Messer.
Last week, Ryan, the party’s 2012 vice presidential nominee, stayed out of the spotlight in Janesville, Wisconsin — and told friends and allies he’s still skeptical of taking the job, though he hasn’t shut the door quite yet.
If he doesn’t get into the race, upwards of a dozen candidates could jump in, ranging from the conservative head of the Republican Study Committee, Rep. Bill Flores of Texas, Rep. Daniel Webster of Florida, Rep. Mike Pompeo of Kansas and Georgia Rep. Lynn Westmoreland, who told CNN Friday that he was prepared to make a run for speaker.
The longer Ryan waits, the less patience Republicans are bound to have.
“Frankly, I think waiting doesn’t make it easier,” said Messer, chairman of the Republican Policy Committee. “The longer we wait, the harder it is to commit.”
If Ryan doesn’t get in, it could take “several weeks” for the conference to back a candidate who can get 218 votes on the House floor to get elected speaker, according to Rep. David Jolly, R-Florida, who backs Webster’s bid.
“If we just elect another speaker who is going to decide not to tackle hard issues for the sake of politics, we’ll probably lose the White House next year,” Jolly said.
Just as Republicans are grappling with their leadership problems, Hillary Clinton is set to testify before the House Select Committee on Benghazi on Thursday. It’s a huge moment for the GOP-led Congress and Clinton — with the potential to reshape the committee’s investigation and the presidential race.
But internally, the Benghazi probe has been beset by problems — largely by the GOP’s own making. California Rep. Kevin McCarthy, the House majority leader who abruptly dropped out of the speaker’s race earlier this month, initially gave Democrats fresh talking points when he touted the committee’s work in causing Clinton’s poll numbers to drop. And Hanna, the New York Republican, said on a radio program last week that the committee was in part “designed to go after” Clinton.
The comments, which gave Clinton more ammunition to accuse the committee of launching a partisan witchhunt, infuriated Republicans — especially since Hanna had no involvement in the panel’s work.
Westmoreland, a member of the Benghazi committee, asserted that Hanna made “uninformed, personal comments.”
“I’ve never seen him at any of our meetings, I’ve never seen him at a hearing. I’ve never seen him at a witness interview. I’ve never talked to him about Benghazi. I don’t know if he’s ever talked to any of the other members,” Westmoreland told CNN. “It seems like he’s just getting this information from the Democrats and Media Matters.”
Asked if he were frustrated by Hanna’s comments, Pompeo said: “My life is full of frustrations.”
Messer added: “My advice would be to all my colleagues who are not on the committee: We ought to do our best to leave the commentary quiet — and let those folks do their job. … The problem is not with the work of the Benghazi committee, the problem has been with members not on the committee deciding that they would be political commentators.”
A spokeswoman for Hanna did not respond to multiple inquiries seeking comment.
Pessimism grows over bipartisan fiscal deal
As Republicans navigate ahead of the much-anticipated Clinton hearing, GOP leaders must resolve a looming standoff with the White House over several key fiscal matters, including funding highway programs by Oct. 29, raising the national debt ceiling by Nov. 3 and funding the government by Dec. 11.
Both parties are preparing to pass yet another short-term extension of highway funding to keep road and construction programs afloat. But a much more arduous task revolves around raising the debt ceiling, which has been one of the most divisive fights within the GOP for the past several years.
Hoping to avoid a standoff, staff-level talks between the White House and congressional leaders — Boehner, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi — have taken place behind-the-scenes over the last few weeks.
The goal, according to people familiar with the process, is to find a big fiscal deal that would lift spending caps for two years and raise the debt ceiling through the 2016 elections. To circumvent the possibility of a Dec. 11 shutdown, the two sides are seeking to raise spending for defense and domestic programs by roughly $76 billion per year — and find other cuts within the budget to offset those increases and counteract sequestration.
McConnell, sources said, proposed cuts to Social Security and Medicare to pay for the increased spending, but Democrats rejected that offer. And Republicans said last week that the White House’s proposed offsets were not suitable.
Pessimism on Capitol Hill is now growing that there will be a large-scale fiscal deal, meaning that Boehner — in his final days in office — appears likely to move a debt ceiling bill separately in order to avoid a default on the country’s $18.4 trillion national debt. Such a move would almost certainly provoke a full-scale rebellion on the right.
Paul, the Kentucky Republican who has slipped in the presidential polls, said he would insist that the GOP passes a constitutional amendment to balance the budget before raising the debt ceiling — a bill that has virtually no chance of overcoming Senate Democratic opposition. Paul added that the GOP should let government funding expire and force Democrats to make concessions in order to reopen the government.
“I think we should let all the spending expire, make them start over — and make the Democrats get 60 votes to start spending,” Paul said.
The White House has repeatedly said that it would not negotiate over the debt ceiling increase — meaning that the President wants Congress to raise the borrowing limit without putting any strings on it.
Messer, a member of Boehner’s leadership team, said the outgoing speaker would lose ample support in the GOP if he tried to move a clean debt ceiling bill. Still, Boehner could get such a measure through the House relying on Democrats.
“The only way you get a sizable number of Republican votes is to include spending reductions in any debt ceiling increase,” Messer said. “If John decides to go another route, he’ll be doing it without very many Republicans.”