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Are Republicans too divided to have a civil war?

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Photo - This combination of 2013 file photos shows, from left, top row, Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky. and Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla. and bottom row, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. Pivotal developments on two cultural issues - immigration reform and gay marriage - offer an early preview of potential fault lines among Republicans weighing White House bids in 2016. (AP Photo)
This combination of 2013 file photos shows, from left, top row, Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky. and Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla. and bottom row, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. Pivotal developments on two cultural issues - immigration reform and gay marriage - offer an early preview of potential fault lines among Republicans weighing White House bids in 2016. (AP Photo)
Politics,Beltway Confidential,Byron York,Republican Party,Analysis

A nasty fight is brewing among Republicans over a proposal to defund Obamacare. Another intra-party fight is flaring over national security and the war on terror. And yet another is well under way over immigration reform. In each, some Republicans seem more fired up to go after each other than to take on President Obama and the Democrats. The conflicts could be signs that the party is headed toward all-out civil war. Or they could be part of an unhappy but temporary stretch for a party that still hasn’t gotten over its rejection by the voters in 2012.

It’s more likely that this is just a rocky time for a rejected and confused party. The conflicts inside the GOP today just don’t line up in the configuration of a classic civil war. There are multiple issues involved, and the lawmakers on various sides of various issues don’t lean the same way on each issue. Republicans who are opponents on one issue are allies on another. Looking at the Senate, for example, it’s unlikely that there will be a total civil war between Senate Faction A and Senate Faction B when some members of the opposing factions are united in Faction C, or Faction D, or so on. In other words, it may be that the Republican Party is too divided to have a real civil war. Perhaps chaos would be a better description. We’ll know more later.

What we know now is that GOP lawmakers are remarkably tense over the issue of defunding Obamacare. When I asked Sen. Tom Coburn about it Friday, he went off on the issue, calling the proposal “dishonest” and “hype,” not to mention “impossible.” It can’t be done, given the Republicans’ 46-vote minority in the Senate, Coburn argued, and the government shutdown that could result from such a maneuver would be disastrous for the GOP.

Coburn questioned the motives of the GOP senators — among them Mike Lee, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, and Rand Paul — who are behind the effort, calling the move “a denial of reality mixed with a whole bunch of hype to promote groups and individuals.” And then: “The worst thing is being dishonest with your base about what you can accomplish, ginning everybody up and then creating disappointment.” Later, when I mentioned Lee specifically, Coburn responded, “Lee’s answer [to critics] is, ‘Give me a different strategy.’ Well, there isn’t one, because we lost the [election]. I’m getting phone calls from Oklahoma saying, ‘Support Mike Lee,’ and I’m ramming right back: Support him in destroying the Republican Party?”

Those are pretty strong words from a senior Republican about his fellow senators. And some other GOP senators echoed those sentiments. “I agree with my friend Dr. Coburn,” tweeted Sen. John McCain. And Richard Burr called the defunding ultimatum “the dumbest idea I’ve ever heard.”

For the most part, Coburn’s less-senior targets haven’t fired back, but Cruz’s chief of staff, Chip Roy, sent out a string of tweets denouncing Coburn’s comments. “Since when is a promise to fight disastrous policy ‘dishonest’?” Roy asked. “Only in DC.” Just to drive the point home, Roy ended a number of his tweets with the hashtag #surrendercaucus.

If the last week is any indication, the Republican vs. Republican conflict will get worse as the deadline approaches for action over a continuing resolution. Lee and his colleagues have established a no-compromise position, and it is difficult to imagine them climbing down from it. On the other hand, they are a small minority — just 12 out of the Senate’s 46 Republicans — and won’t be able to work their will. But the one thing that can be accomplished is a lot of squabbling, name-calling, and the creation of more bad feelings.

The fight over national security has also popped up in recent days, after New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie called libertarian opposition to some of the government’s surveillance programs “dangerous.” “This strain of libertarianism that’s going through parties right now and making big headlines I think is a very dangerous thought,” Christie told an audience at a Republican governors’ meeting in Colorado Thursday. The “esoteric debate” that Rand Paul and others are conducting about government anti-terrorism programs doesn’t fit the post-9/11 world, Christie argued. “I want them to come to New Jersey and sit across from the widows and orphans and have that conversation. And they won’t, ’cause that’s a much tougher conversation to have….The next attack that comes that kills thousands of Americans as a result, people are going to be looking back on the people having this intellectual debate.”

In response, Paul tweeted, “Christie worries about the dangers of freedom. I worry about the danger of losing that freedom. Spying without warrants is unconstitutional.” And a Paul aide told the Washington Times, “If Gov. Christie believes the constitutional rights and the privacy of all Americans are ‘esoteric,’ he either needs a new dictionary or he needs to talk to more Americans, because a great number of them are concerned about the dramatic overreach of our government in recent times.”

The dispute between Christie and Paul — a fight that includes others, like New York Republican Rep. Peter King, who on Sunday said Paul’s “isolationist streak” could ultimately “destroy” the Republican party — will surely last longer than the fight over funding Obamacare. “This is a battle that is real within the Republican party,” Fox News’ Brit Hume said Sunday. “It is a strong and deep disagreement between internationalists and those who are in some way have been labeled isolationists. It has been going on for a long time. It has subsided for periods of time. And now it’s back. The party is going to have to have this out.”

Finally, there is the fight over immigration, which is pretty well known at this point. Perhaps the most striking thing about the immigration battle, in the context of the other intra-party conflicts now going on, is that the number of Republican senators who voted for the Gang of Eight comprehensive immigration reform bill — 14 –  is barely larger than the dozen who support Mike Lee’s defunding Obamacare plan. But they are a different group. And those groups don’t line up precisely with the sides in the national security debate. Tom Coburn and John McCain were on different sides of the immigration vote, but they are united against the defunding Obamacare initiative. Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz were also on opposing sides on immigration, but they are united in favor of defunding Obamacare. And Cruz, Rubio, and Lee joined Paul’s famous filibuster in which he mused about the possibility of U.S. government drone strikes against American cities — a filibuster Rubio’s immigration allies McCain and Sen. Lindsey Graham bitterly opposed.

In other words, the party is divided every which way. And at least some of that division is entirely understandable. It’s what happens to parties when they don’t have a leader. And Republicans, after two straight presidential losses, have no one who even approaches national leadership. So factions appear and divisions worsen.

But the very number of divisions within the GOP makes it difficult to imagine the party falling into a classic civil war, with two sides lined up against each other over some irresolvable dispute. The coming battles inside the Republican party will be a series of moving fronts, with changing sides and changing tactics. It could be ugly at times, and it could be serious enough to ensure a chaotic presidential primary fight in 2015 and 2016. But all-out civil war? Probably not.

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Byron York

Chief Political Correspondent
The Washington Examiner