Republicans deliver another self-inflicted wound

Chief correspondent

Republicans may yet win the elections in November. They may end up in control of both houses of Congress come January. But in the final week before a lengthy August recess, they have shown a remarkable capacity to complicate their path to victory.

The latest blow came Thursday in what has become predictable fashion: chaos in the House. Amid fractious infighting, House leaders abruptly pulled their alternative to President Obama’s bill to deal with the influx of Central American children crossing the border. What was said to be a national crisis turned into one more problem facing deferral.

Dan Balz is Chief Correspondent at The Washington Post. He has served as the paper’s National Editor, Political Editor, White House correspondent and Southwest correspondent. View Archive

But there was more over the week that could contribute to the deteriorated brand called the Republican Party. On Wednesday, the House voted to sue Obama, an action that may cheer the party’s conservative wing but that also may appear to other voters to be a distraction at a time of major domestic and international problems.

In the background this week was talk of impeachment. Republicans rightly suggest that the White House and Democrats are doing all they can to stoke discussion of the topic as a way to raise money and motivate their base. But it is a subject that has bubbled up from the conservative grass roots of the GOP and that now bedevils Republican leaders.

Fundamentals in this election year continue to favor the Republicans. Obama’s approval rating is low and stagnant. Not much on the immediate horizon is likely to change that, given the state of the world. The economy is getting better, but many voters aren’t convinced of that. The Senate map favors Republicans, who need a net of six seats to gain control of the chamber.

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This isn’t 2010 all over again by any means: The unrest is more muted. But looking toward November, it’s better to be in the Republicans’ position now than the Democrats’. Standing in the GOP’s path to victory, however, are perceptions of the party itself, nationally and in some of the states. How much self-inflicted damage is too much?

The tea party movement gives the Republicans energy, but it continues to push the party further to the right than some strategists believe is safe ground. In a number of states, strategists for the GOP say tea party positions are outside the mainstream, even the conservative mainstream.

Republicans are asking for the right to govern, to control the legislative machinery starting in 2015. But they continue to struggle with that very responsibility in the one chamber they control. How many times have Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) and his top lieutenants suffered similar embarrassments as support for leadership measures suddenly eroded in the face of a conservative revolt?

Republicans have been repeatedly criticized for not offering a governing agenda if they take power. What happened Thursday underscores why that has been so difficult. Getting the party’s factions on the same page has proved more than difficult. In some states where Republicans control the governorship and the legislature, there has been a backlash to their governing agenda. Kansas and North Carolina are two prime examples.

In Congress, Republicans have spent four years attacking the Affordable Care Act with a series of votes to repeal or defund it. But is there a Republican alternative they are collectively promoting this fall? No. Rep. Paul Ryan (Wis.) told reporters at a breakfast held by the Christian Science Monitor on Thursday that he is working on one — but that it is just one of several GOP ideas on health care.

House Republican leaders say Democrats are hypocritical to blame them for the gridlock and chaos. They point to a series of bills approved with Democratic support that are parked in the Senate with no action. They say Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) should let senators vote on them. But by their own high-voltage missteps, they draw attention away from that and to themselves. They reinforce a narrative that remains not in their favor.

The immigration issue offered a fresh example of the conundrum for Republicans. The border crisis presented Obama with a serious problem — substantively and politically. He offered his own plan for $3.7 billion in spending, which was too high-priced for the GOP. Their alternative called for $659 million in spending.

But at the center was an issue of power. Republicans view Obama as an out-of-control executive who has exceeded his constitutional authority and they want to take him to court (although ironically for doing something with the Affordable Care Act, delaying the employer mandate, a move they favor).

The issue of executive power extends to immigration. With comprehensive immigration reform locked down in the House and heading nowhere this year, Obama’s administration is exploring what he can do through his executive powers to accomplish some of what immigration reform legislation would do, including possibly allowing some of the adults here illegally not to face deportation.

Many House Republicans want to stop him. Some also wanted to force him to roll back what he did in 2012, when he allowed children who came into the United States illegally with their parents to stay without an immediate threat of deportation. All of that contributed to the collapse of the border bill.

It also prompted a call from at least one powerful Republican for Obama to act on his own.

“I think this will put a lot more pressure on the president to act,” House Appropriations Committee Chairman Harold Rogers (R-Ky.) told reporters on Capitol Hill. “In many ways, it was his actions and inactions that caused the crisis on the border, and we attempted in this bill to help remedy this crisis. He has the authority and power to solve the problem forthwith.”

Obama ridiculed the House for wanting to sue him. “They’re mad because I’m doing my job,” he told an audience in Kansas City, Mo., on Wednesday.

That’s a large overstatement by the president, but Republicans have handed him the argument to make through their actions and inactions.

Republicans will have five weeks outside of Washington to let things settle after Thursday’s breakdown. They will have time to regroup and try to put this moment behind them. Obama and the Democrats are still on the defensive in the battle for control in these midterm elections. But Republicans would do better if they found a way to stop hurting themselves.

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