The Looming GOP Split

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The next 96 hours could determine the future of the Republican Party. If the Tea Party is coronating its own third-party candidate next summer, the moment of schism will likely be traced back to this week of debate on raising the debt ceiling.

The fissures are already evident. House Speaker John Boehner and his No.2, majority leader Eric Cantor, split on a grand bargain for deficit reduction. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s plan of last resort was met with outright hostility by the House Republican conference. And the House Republicans’ preferred plan — Cut, Cap and Balance – is less than popular with the Republican pundit class who openly acknowledge it’s a PR stunt that has zero chance of becoming law.

To hear Democrats tell it, House Republicans are “isolationist,” “extreme” and “spend more time listening to each other than their leaders.” Of course, it behooves Democrats to push the idea of a Republican Party in disarray. But Republicans have given them plenty of fodder.

As two roads diverge before the GOP on the debt ceiling, it’s increasingly hard to see a path that leads to party unity. Go right and the GOP risks default and, as McConnell has warned, being blamed by the center for an economic disaster. Take the center path – there is no left turn here – and Republicans risk an angry Tea Party base and potential primary threats. From the advent of the Tea Party to purity tests and the 2010 primary challenges, the split has been a long time coming.

(MORE: As the Debt Debate Shifts, Tea Partyers Plan to Hold Their Ground

The center road toward compromise looks to be the likely path. Boehner said on Thursday that he has been preparing his flock for such an eventuality. “Frankly, I think it would be irresponsible, on behalf of the Congress and the President, not to be looking at backup strategies for how to solve this problem,” Boehner told reporters.

As Karl Rove noted, the debate is now between a package that is mostly spending cuts versus 100% spending cuts and polls have consistently shown Obama has public opinion on his side in that debate. Five recent polls have shown overwhelming support for a “balanced approach” that includes a mix of tax increases and spending cuts. As David Brooks wrote two weeks ago, Republicans would be crazy to walk away from what will likely be the best offer for deficit reduction on their terms in a generation. But Republicans seem intent on not only walking away from a deal, but handing Democrats electoral gifts as they go.

Even if a grand bargain doesn’t happen now, Obama can claim he put everything on the table and Republicans walked away. And on a congressional level, Democrats were delighted with the GOP’s vote on Cut, Cap and Balance, which cuts half a trillion dollars more than Paul Ryan’s budget. “After polling and town hall meetings where voters rejected this plan to end Medicare, House Republicans doubled down on it — cutting, capping and ending it again,” says Jesse Ferguson, a spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which works to elect Democrats to Congress. “That’s just wrong and an example of House Republican’s misguided priorities: ending Medicare instead of creating jobs.”

(MORE: For Grassroots Conservatives in Debt Fight, the GOP Is Now the Enemy)

Even Grover Norquist on Thursday told the Washington Post he didn’t consider allowing George W. Bush’s tax cuts to lapse a tax increase. When the anti-tax guy is encouraging a compromise that would allow the Bush tax cuts to expire, you know the GOP’s reached the precipice.

Certainly, the freshmen have compromised before. They demanded $100 billion in cuts from the 2011 budget. They got $38.5 billion. And after a long, drawn out battle, most of the freshmen voted for that deal. And perhaps they are, again, holding out for the best deal possible. But at some point – whether it’s next week or in six months – the GOP will face a hard decision on revenue increases. And when that road splits, the Republican party might just do the same.

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