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Inside the Republican Suicide Machine

It's open warfare within the GOP – and all of America is caught in the crossfire

Senator Ted Cruz
Melina Mara/The Washington Post via Getty Images
October 9, 2013 11:45 AM ET

The day before Congress broke for its August recess, on an afternoon when most of official Washington was tying up loose ends and racing to get out of town, Sen. Ted Cruz was setting the stage for the chaos that has consumed the nation's capital in recent weeks.

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The tall Tea Party-backed Texan – the state's junior senator, with less than a year in office – worked his mischief in a windowless Capitol basement, where dozens of the most radical members of the House had gathered for a meeting of the Republican Study Committee. Once a marginal group known for elevating anti-government dogma above party loyalty, the RSC now counts among its members 174 of the 232 House Republicans.

"Father, we thank you," says Rep. Michele Bachmann, opening the meeting. "You are the most important presence in this room." In a pinstriped suit and yellow tie, Cruz sits at the center of a long conference table, flanked by RSC chair Steve Scalise and by the group's most powerful member, former chair Jim Jordan of Ohio – who has routinely marshaled House rebels into battle against leadership. Jordan flashes the visiting senator a conspiratorial smile.

Soft-spoken but passionate, Cruz derides the work of House leadership, who this same week have scheduled a 40th, futile bill to roll back Obamacare. Instead of "symbolic statements" that "won't become law," Cruz says, the time has come to force a real fight – one that Republicans can "actually win." It's imperative to act now, Cruz warns, before the full benefits of Obamacare kick in and Americans get "hooked on the sugar, hooked on the subsidies." His plan: Yoke the defunding of Obamacare to the must-pass budget bill the House will take up in September. The endgame? To force a government shutdown so painful and protracted that Barack Obama would have no choice but to surrender the crown jewel of his presidency. "As scary as a shutdown fight is," Cruz insists, "if we don't stand and defund Obamacare now, we never will."

With those words, Cruz fired the first shot in a civil war that has cleaved Republicans in both chambers of Congress – a struggle that threatens the legitimacy of the Grand Old Party and the stability of the global economy. The fight has little to do with policy, or even ideology. It pits the party's conservative establishment against an extremist insurgency in a battle over strategy, tactics and, ultimately, control of the party. Each side surveys the other with distrust, even contempt. The establishment believes the insurgents' tactics are suicidal; the insurgents believe the establishment lacks the courage of its alleged convictions – while its own members are so convinced of their righteousness that they compare themselves to civil rights heroes like Rosa Parks. The establishment is backed by powerful business concerns with a vested interest in a functioning government. The insurgents are championed by wealthy ideologues who simply seek to tear down government. Both sides are steeled by millions in unregulated, untraceable "dark money."

Having backed the GOP into a shutdown fight that congressional leaders never wanted, the insurgents are winning, and establishment leaders are running scared. America is now careening toward a catastrophic voluntary default on our debt because no one in the Republican Party with the authority to put on the brakes has the guts to apply them, for fear of being toppled from power.

"I've never seen anything like it, and neither has anybody else around here," says the House's eldest statesman, 87-year-old John Dingell, who has represented Michigan since 1955. "It's a grave misfortune for the country."

When Republicans took control of the House in 2011 – fueled by the passion of the Tea Party and the virtually unlimited funding of donors like the Koch brothers – casual observers of American politics saw a House GOP united in the politics of the extreme right. But inside the Capitol, the story was more complicated. The leadership that the Tea Party had vaulted to power – Speaker John Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor – were members of the GOP's tainted old guard. Although divided by a generation and by an often fierce political rivalry, both Boehner and Cantor abetted the budget-busting "compassionate conservatism" of Karl Rove. Cantor rubber-stamped the "Bridge to Nowhere"; Boehner was a frequent flier on corporate jets. They teamed up to steer the passage of TARP in the face of fierce opposition from grassroots conservatives – a moment that Tea Party leaders cite as the birth of their insurgency.

Cantor, along with GOP Whip Kevin McCarthy, had actively recruited most of the 85 incoming freshmen. "They figured they could ride the Tea Party to a majority, and co-opt all of those people," says Norm Ornstein, a scholar at the conservative think tank AEI. But from the start, leadership misjudged the new arrivals. Many had come to Washington to fight, not fall in line. "You show up in the fall," says Rep. Tim Huelskamp, a self-described Young Turk from Kansas, "and they say, 'Here's what we're going to do, and everybody follow.' And we said, 'We've got a bunch of folks who don't very much like the direction you've been wantin' to go.'"

As leadership struggled to corral the class of 2010, a fellow congressman from Boehner's home state of Ohio seized the advantage. Jordan, the RSC chair, recruited 78 freshmen into his fold. The RSC suddenly comprised a majority of the majority party, and Jordan found himself in a position of tremendous power and leverage, concepts that the wiry but broad-shouldered third-term congressman understood in his bones – he won two NCAA championships wrestling in the 134-pound class.

Boehner never knew what hit him. The speaker would soon suffer two stinging defeats at the hands of Jordan and the RSC. The first came during the 2011 debt-ceiling battle, when Boehner shut out his conference to negotiate with President Obama a $4 trillion "grand bargain" that combined modest tax increases with draconian spending cuts. By any objective standard of Washington deal making, Boehner had extracted extraordinary concessions from a sitting Democratic president.

Believing the old rules of Washington still applied, Boehner was confident that where he led, House Republicans would follow. But Jordan's RSC simply wouldn't abide any deal that raised taxes, and more than 170 members were united against the speaker. If Boehner pressed ahead, the Grand Bargain could only pass with a majority of Democratic votes – a scenario that Cantor feared would spark a mutiny. So he spiked Boehner's deal. "We were preventing the speaker from making a bad mistake for himself and the rest of the leadership team," a former leadership aide tells Rolling Stone.

Jordan's intransigence forced Republican leaders and the president to settle on a smaller, cuts-only package that cost America its AAA credit rating and created the blunt across-the-board spending cuts known as the sequester. Jordan and more than 60 House radicals opposed even that final deal, but he still claimed victory: "Conservatives stood firm," he gloated. "We [forced] Washington to begin addressing its spending­driven debt crisis."

Jordan beat Boehner again a year later during the fight over the expiring Bush tax cuts. In December 2012, the speaker introduced a compromise measure to preserve the Bush rates for incomes of less than $1 million. "We're going to have the votes to pass," Cantor declared. Grover Norquist – the keeper of the Republican Party's anti-tax pledge – gave his blessing. But Jordan and his loyalists locked arms against it. "We're the party that says you shouldn't raise taxes," Jordan responded. After Boehner couldn't find the votes, he tearfully recited the serenity prayer before his conference, asking God's strength to accept "the things I cannot change."

With Boehner bowed, Vice President Joe Biden and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell crafted a compromise that sailed through the Senate on a vote of 89 to 8 – an astonishing display of bipartisanship in the chamber of Congress that people used to think of as the broken one. In a public rebuke of his House's right flank, Boehner brought the bill to the floor and joined a minority of Republicans and Nancy Pelosi's majority bloc of Democrats in voting for it. The message was clear: The Capitol was uniting against the destructive House partisans. Jordan fumed at the passage of what he called a "classic Washington deal."

Seeking to restore discipline to his House, Boehner tried to play the tough guy. He kicked four Tea Party troublemakers – including Huelskamp – off their favored committees. "They were fired because they were assholes," says a source close to leadership. But once again, Boehner misread his opponents. Far from backing down, the backbenchers mounted a January coup that came close to toppling Boehner. Huelskamp cast his ballot for Jordan.

Eight Flagrant Examples of Republican Shutdown Hypocrisy

Chastened, the speaker was beginning to understand that he needed to stop feuding with his fellow Buckeye. Jordan – a politician with almost zero national profile – has emerged as the commander the House GOP's opposition bloc, says Rep. Justin Amash, a libertarian-leaning 33-year-old Republican from Michigan. "Jim Jordan is a strong leader," Amash says. "Leadership understands that if his concerns are not addressed, there could be a large group – 40 to 50 – that doesn't stick with leadership on big votes."

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