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Politics

The Debate Ahead: Republican vs. Republican

Forget fighting with the Democrats. Soon, Republicans will be fighting with themselves.

The new Republican revolution is so last year. Get ready for the GOP civil war, pitting tax cutters against deficit cutters, Tea Partyers vs. the regulars in the House.

The infighting will overshadow major differences with Democrats, at least for now, leaving a chasm as Republican candidates take their first steps toward the 2012 presidential race and congressional elections in which the GOP will try to keep the House and bid to take over the Senate.

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The two key tests come early this year, with showdowns over the federal budget and raising the federal debt ceiling.

Lawmakers with ties to the Tea Party won’t budge from their mission to reduce government. They’ll push to eliminate some departments and offices in the huge federal bureaucracy and will propose sweeping cuts in federal spending. “Small government” makes a good bumper sticker and serves their rhetorical purposes, but once they start laying out specific plans to make it happen, their task will become much tougher.

Other Republicans, including the leaders and many veterans, will embrace the rhetoric of curbing Washington spending and regulatory overreach. But they aren’t about to start tearing the government apart. Indeed, they’ve already aggravated the Tea Party wing of the party by stepping back from a vow to cut $100 billion in federal spending this year without waiting for the economy to improve. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) now calls that number a “goal,” and others in the party suggest that $50 billion is more realistic.

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The decision to raise the debt ceiling this spring will be another setback for the Tea Party faction in the House. Enthusiastic, movement-backed freshmen will argue at length in March and April that the debt limit should not be raised and that spending should be whacked instead. They may win a pledge that Congress will get serious about cutting, but it will be nonbinding and will soon be forgotten. In the end, enough Republicans and Democrats will vote to raise the ceiling, not so much because they want to, but because the faith and trust in U.S. commitments are at stake.

But the budget may be the biggest battlefield for the GOP factions. A continuing resolution providing stopgap spending expires in March and must be renewed to allow the government to continue to operate. And if another short-term resolution is approved, another extension will be needed later in the year. Again, Tea Partyers will balk and will put pressure on House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) to back them.

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Although a government shutdown remains unlikely, it’s not out of the question. Many Tea Party-influenced freshmen seem to relish the prospect. Party veterans are wary of going that far. They remember how the shutdown backfired in 1995, allowing Democrats to seize the high ground, and they worry about a replay.

Democrats are thrilled to allow the GOP debate about the role of government to play out this year. Even though the GOP has little chance of shrinking the size of government, the intraparty debate and the headlines that accompany it will allow President Obama to warn that Republicans aim to eliminate the Environmental Protection Agency, close the Department of Education and tie the hands of Treasury and the Federal Reserve.

Look for that theme in the president’s Jan. 25 State of the Union address and in speeches he’ll give later in the year when he officially becomes a candidate for reelection. The proper role of government is one debate he’s thrilled to see start.

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