GOP rebranding effort is officially dead

Last week, the wheels came completely off. From food stamps to immigration, the new Republican Party is the old one

Published September 24, 2013 12:30PM (EDT)

John Boehner, Ted Cruz, Mitch McConnell                                                                                                                                      (Reuters/Larry Downing/Adrees Latif/AP/J. Scott Applewhite)
John Boehner, Ted Cruz, Mitch McConnell (Reuters/Larry Downing/Adrees Latif/AP/J. Scott Applewhite)

Earlier this year, just a few weeks after taking a drubbing at the polls last November, House Republicans voted overwhelmingly for an updated, even more conservative version of the controversial budget, authored by Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., that helped define them during the 2012 campaign.

A few days later, 40 Senate Republicans voted to do the same.

It was an early indication that the party had reflected upon the outcome of the election and determined that the appropriate policy response was to change nothing. But it wasn't all that clear cut. A partisan budget is a statement of values, but it's not a bill that can become a law. And when it came to real legislating, the record looked somewhat different. On New Year's, tons of Republicans voted, perhaps unwillingly, for a fiscal cliff deal that increased taxes by hundreds of billions of dollars over the coming decade. Party leaders and new stars were talking a good game about immigration reform, and a dozen Republicans eventually helped pass a comprehensive bill in the Senate. Soon thereafter a series of caves on must-pass legislation made it seem like their appetite for the brinkmanship that defined the party in 2011 and 2012 had subsided.

Then in July, House Republicans tried to act on their budget -- to pass part of it into law -- and fell flat on their faces. It turns out it's much harder to cut spending on particular community and social programs than it is to support a budget that calls for lower government spending in the abstract.

But last week, Republicans withdrew every adumbration that they were rethinking any part of their agenda.

You must have heard by now that House Republican leaders were ultimately forced to call the right's bluff and pass a bill that makes continued funding for the government contingent on defunding Obamacare. It's a procedurally extreme but ultimately doomed attempt to destroy the Affordable Care Act, just days before the enrollment period for its insurance benefits is scheduled to open. GOP leadership gets that it's a dumb strategy, but to give you a sense of where the entire party is, it can't do anything unless its radicals have been placated or denuded in some sense first.

That was Friday.

Just one day before that, all but a couple of handfuls of House Republicans voted for a bill that would cut SNAP benefits (food stamps) by $40 billion over 10 years. These are the same House Republicans who, having just hived food stamps off of the farm bill, voted to lavish subsidies on millionaires in the agriculture industry. And, of course, they refuse to cut tax benefits for wealthy earners or large businesses by another penny, let alone by $40 billion.

What makes this vote unusually telling is that Republicans know Democrats won't agree to savage, punitive cuts like this, particularly as long as GOP won't even consider raising taxes on high-income individuals, or cut their tax expenditures. They also know that they have little leverage over Democrats when it comes to food stamps because SNAP is a mandatory program that will continue to issue benefits even if Congress does nothing. And yet they did it anyhow.

With the help of a few dozen House Democrats, Republicans may have been able to pass a bill that limited the cuts to a still-staggering $20 billion, then struck a deal with the Senate to limit the cuts even further and locked in cuts they claim to want without identifying the party uniquely with cruel policy. But that would've been an unsatisfactory outcome to enough Republicans that they decided to hold a special vote to kick hundreds of thousands of poor kids off food stamps just because. Either these cuts will get dialed back again in negotiations with the Senate or no farm bill will pass, in which case Republicans will secure no food stamp cuts whatsoever.

But just for argument's sake let's bracket fiscal issues for a moment. Modern Republicans have always valued low taxes for the rich and cutting benefits for the poor more than they care about almost anything else. In that sense, their stands against Obamacare and SNAP benefits were predictable.

But last week Republicans also decided to abandon what was left of their efforts to pass immigration reform.

On Friday, two of the three House Republicans participating in a bipartisan immigration reform working group threw in the towel. More to the point, they threw in the towel because the political environment became too hot for them -- which is why they blamed President Obama for their decision, rather than irreconcilable policy differences with Democrats.

“After years of hard work and countless meetings, we have reached a tipping point and can no longer continue working on a broad approach to immigration,” said Reps. John Carter, R-Texas, and Sam Johnson, R-Texas, in a statement. “We want to be clear. The problem is politics. Instead of doing what’s right for America, President Obama time and again has unilaterally disregarded the U.S. Constitution, the letter of the law, and bypassed the Congress — the body most representative of the people — in order to advance his political agenda."

According to Greg Sargent, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi will dial up the pressure on Republicans this week by introducing immigration legislation of her own -- one that hybridizes the Senate's bill with measures bipartisan House negotiators had settled upon. But Speaker John Boehner has also promised not to put immigration legislation on the House floor unless half of his conference supports it -- and I have my doubts that House Republicans are going to support any bill, but particularly a huge one like immigration reform, introduced by Nancy Pelosi.

She could in theory introduce what's known as a discharge petition, which would force a vote on her own bill if signed by 218 members. But Republicans will be under immense pressure not to buck the leadership to pass a Democratic immigration reform bill. The political consequences of immigration reform are questionable for Republicans to begin with, but if a bill becomes law over the party's explicit objections, they'll experience all of the downside and none of the upside.

Which is a long way of saying it's probably not going to happen. And Republicans will go to the electorate in 2014 and perhaps again in 2016, without anything new or different or improved to offer an increasingly liberal electorate.

By Brian Beutler

Brian Beutler is Salon's political writer. Email him at and follow him on Twitter at @brianbeutler.

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