We know that Republican Party is badly divided in the House right now. Those divisions matter a great deal. They are the cause (and perhaps the consequence) of Speaker John Boehner’s weak leadership. And it appears that one of the party’s factions is behind the current strategy of using a government shutdown to extract spending concessions from President Obama and Senate Democrats.
The GOP’s factional politics are politically quite significant, yet I have seen only rough estimates of what those factions are. For instance, Robert Costa tells Ezra Klein that there are 30 to 40 “hard-liners” supporting the Party’s shutdown strategy, and another 50 to 60 Republicans who feel “very much pressured” by them. Apart from surveying the lawmakers themselves, is there a way to more precisely identify the size and composition of these factions? Byron York argues that the hard-liners number closer to 30, and that only 20 to 30 more are following out of fear of being subject to a conservative primary.
Sarah Binder (and earlier Chris Cillizza in The Fix) have used key measures (mostly roll call votes) to divide the Party into groups based on their degree of loyalty to the leadership. Inspired by their efforts, I attempted a slightly different mapping exercise of my own. My goal was to measure five major groups within the Republican conference that have been identified by Costa, The Fix and other observers. They include:
1. The “No” caucus — those least likely to support Boehner on any matter;
2. The “Difficult” caucus — strong conservatives presumably behind the shutdown gambit;
3. The “Fearful” caucus — Republicans who might fit Costa’s category of “pressured” Republicans because they are worried enough by a potential or actual primary challenger from the right to go along with group #2, even if they might prefer not to;
4. The “Loyalist” caucus — true-blue Boehner loyalists upon whom the speaker can rely to maintain his authority in the Party and support leadership votes, even if conservatives won’t; and
5. The “Compromise” caucus — Republicans most likely to vote with Democrats on bills (including a “clean” CR, should one ever come to the House floor).
To identify the members of these groups I used both selected floor votes (mostly the same as those Binder and The Fix use) as well as other data. Why not just use recorded votes? In part because it’s conceivable that the members of these groups may vote the same way but for very different and important reasons. (For instance, members of groups 2, 3, and 4 might vote en bloc to maintain a governmental shutdown, but if Boehner abandons that plan—and can find a way to protect his Republicans from primary challenges—he could probably get the support of members from groups 3 and 4, but almost certainly not from group 2.)
Here is what I came up with.
1. The “No” Caucus: 10 Republicans. This includes all those who voted against Boehner for speaker and against Hurricane Sandy relief, the Violence Against Women Act, the farm bill in June, and the January fiscal deal (if they were in the 112th Congress).
2. The “Difficult” Caucus: 26 Republicans. These are Republicans not in the first group who (a) have been members of the House’s Tea Party Caucus, (b) voted against the leadership on at least three of the four bills mentioned above, and (c) either cosponsored the Rep. Graves bill or cosigned the Rep. Meadows letter urging that the Affordable Care Act be defunded. These, I think, are pretty strong indications of a conservative, Tea Party-esque streak.
3. The “Fearful” Caucus: 48 Republicans. These are Republicans not in the first two groups who have been either “primaried” by the Club for Growth or risk being so challenged (i.e. their Club for Growth 2012 vote score is under 70% and Romney won their district by over 50%).
4. The “Loyalist” Caucus: 29 Republicans. These are Republicans not in the previous groups who voted with the leadership on all (or all but one) of the four bills mentioned above.
5. The “Compromise” Caucus: 17 Republicans. These are Republicans not in the other four groups who represent districts won by Barack Obama in 2012.
Some caveats are in order. The divisions between different factions are probably more blurry and fluid than this suggests. I do not allow any lawmaker to be in more than one group, though it is entirely possible that some Republicans may cross factional lines. In addition, the data I use are only approximate measures of who belongs in which group. Probably only the G.O.P. whip’s office truly knows where lawmakers’ true allegiances lie, or if the Party can even be divvied up this way. And it is impossible to know how much an individual lawmaker truly fears being subject to a primary; it almost certainly varies by the strength of local tea party groups in individual districts and the quality of likely challengers.
Despite the approximate nature of this exercise, the numbers do roughly fit those provided by Costa: between 30-40 legislators are in either the “No” caucus or the “Difficult” caucus, and just under 50 are members of the “Fearful” caucus.
To the extent to which my measurements are accurate, the size of these groups underscores the difficulties Boehner faces in passing legislation or overcoming the “Hastert Rule.” For instance, if no Democrats vote for a G.O.P. leadership bill on the House floor, and Boehner cannot get his “No” caucus behind it either, the bill dies if more than a half-dozen Republicans defect—giving significant leverage to the 26 members of the “Difficult” caucus. And the small size of the “Loyalist” caucus—which does not include Eric Cantor, by the way—means Boehner has a very small foundation of internal support. (Binder and Cillizza, it should be noted, identify far more potentially loyal Republicans based on their metric – between 80 and 100 – in part because many of those in the “Fearful” caucus have been loyal supporters of leadership on key floor votes.)
It is true that the Party’s solid conservatives/oppositionists (i.e. members of the first three caucuses) constitute less than 40% of the House G.O.P. But I suspect that, depending on the issue, they can probably garner additional support from some of the 102 Republicans who do not fit any of the five factions. (In particular, 58 of those 102 Republicans voted against leadership on at least three of the four bills I use as indicators.) It thus should not come as a surprise that House conservatives have been able to move their leaders towards taking a more confrontational approach with Obama and Senate Democrats.
Of course, the size of the “Compromise” caucus is also large enough that it could move Boehner further to the middle if it wanted to. In fact, there has been significant rumblings from its members (and other Republicans, notably those with lots of federal workers) of building a cross-party coalition on the floor with Democrats to pass a “clean” CR bill.
As many others have pointed out, these divisions, and Boehner’s inability to durably resolve them, are largely why our government is in shutdown mode. And even if Boehner finds a way out of our current political logjam, it seems unlikely that these factions—and the problems they create for governance—will go away anytime soon.