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Congress’s Powerful Republican ‘Suicide Caucus’

U.S. Senator Ted Cruz, a Texas Republican, speaks to the press after leaving the U.S. Senate Chamber after a marathon attack on Obamacare on September 25.
U.S. Senator Ted Cruz, a Texas Republican, speaks to the press after leaving the U.S. Senate Chamber after a marathon attack on Obamacare on September 25.
WASHINGTON -- Their critics call them "anarchists" and accuse them of "political terrorism." Their supporters consider them principled and true to their word.

"They" are a group of around 80 hard-line Republican lawmakers in Congress, mostly the House of Representatives, whose conservative social and economic agenda has thrown sand in the gears of government and sparked open infighting within their party.

On September 30, this powerful bloc led House Republicans in refusing to pass a government funding bill that didn’t also weaken Obamacare, the 2010 law that requires all Americans to buy health insurance that most Republicans oppose.

Senior Republican Senator John McCain called the shutdown "unnecessary," and so did President Barack Obama.

"At midnight last night, for the first time in 17 years, Republicans in Congress chose to shut down the federal government," Obama said. "Let me be more specific: One faction of one party in one house of Congress in one branch of government shut down major parts of the government -- all because they didn’t like one law."

William Galston, a governance expert at the Brookings Institution, describes what drives Congress’s "Tea Party Caucus," named for its members’ allegiance to the antigovernment grassroots Tea Party movement.

"They are a group of very conservative Republicans who tend to be very hostile to the expansion of government spending or government power," Galston says, "who believe that limited government is the best not only for the economy but for the liberty of individuals; and who believe that all of the changes in American government and society in recent decades have been in the wrong direction and who are determined to reverse that course by any means possible."

Battle For 'Soul Of Republican Party'

Those means have included challenging the authority of party leadership and refusing to make compromises necessary to forge legislative agreement. Galston says that "compromise" isn’t a concept Tea Party Republicans embrace easily.

"If you believe that the entire country is moving in the wrong direction, then compromise affects the speed of that movement, but not the direction," Galston says. "So if what you really want to do is change the fundamental course, then you can’t compromise, because compromising undermines your principle objective. And so that’s the kind of clash we have right now between this faction of the Republican Party and just about everybody else."

The schism that has opened up between the two factions of Republicans is being seen by some as a fight for the soul of the party.

On one side are senior figures like McCain, who once called a group of the hard-liners "wacko birds." On the other are newer lawmakers like Senator Rand Paul (Kentucky), who believes that "the Republican Party is an empty vessel unless we imbue it with values."

Most of the members of this conservative caucus were elected in 2012 or 2010 on a platform of rigid adherence to conservative social values and antigovernment policies.

Almost all represent conservative districts in southern or Midwestern states that voted for Mitt Romney in the 2012 presidential election.

And arguably no issue was more central to their success than the promise to repeal Obamacare, which they consider a threat to individual liberty and freedom.

"The New Yorker" magazine has dubbed the group "the Suicide Caucus" for its unconventional political tactics, and described it like this: "These eighty members represent an America where the population is getting whiter, where there are few major cities, where Obama lost the last election in a landslide, and where the Republican Party is becoming more dominant and more popular. Meanwhile, in national politics, each of these trends is actually reverse."

Rebel Movement

Analysts say the group’s power over more moderate Republicans in Congress is down to a combination of factors.

Some, like Galston, see fear among Republicans that a Tea Party candidate from the right will challenge them in the 2014 elections.

Others, like Kyle Kondik of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, blame weak political leadership.

"The leadership just isn’t particularly all that powerful right now," Kondik says. "John Boehner, ever since he took over the [House] speakership in 2011, he’s had a very difficult time getting the caucus to do what he wants them to do. He’s probably one of the weaker speakers in recent history, and that doesn’t necessarily reflect poorly on him, I think it just goes to the state of the Republican Party at this point, where they just don’t have a lot of control over their own members."

Texas Senator Ted Cruz, considered the staff-bearer of the Tea Party in Congress, played a key role in the effort to block any government funding bill that didn’t also defund or delay the main part of the health-care act. He also gave a 21-hour, nonstop speech on the Senate floor about it.

His bluster angered some Republicans, like Senator Bob Corker (Tennessee), who accused both Cruz and Senator Rand Paul of obstructionism.

"My two colleagues, who I respect, have sent out e-mails around the world and turned this into a show, possibly, and therefore they want people around the world to watch, maybe them and others, on the Senate floor, and that is taking priority over getting the legislation back to the House so they can take action before the country’s government shuts down," Corker said.

Although 12 Republicans ultimately voted against a government shutdown, others remained defiant to the end.

When Andrea Mitchell of MSNBC asked Jason Chaffetz (Utah) about McCain’s comment that a shutdown would accomplish nothing, Chaffetz responded: "I don’t care what John McCain thinks. Andrea, I don’t care what John McCain thinks."

That kind of rebellion pleases voters who elected lawmakers like Chaffetz, but the University of Virginia’s Kondik says it could end up hurting the party. He says new Republican lawmakers don’t remember that the last time the government shut down, in the mid-90s, Republicans were blamed and Democratic President Bill Clinton was reelected.

The Brooking Institution’s Galston says history is already starting to repeat itself.

"At some point the Republican Party is going to have to figure out whether it’s willing to let the tail wag the dog indefinitely, because there are some real political costs potentially to the party as a whole if they’re perceived as having become too extreme, having lost touch with the mainstream voters," Galston says, adding, "There is some risk that that’s in the process of happening, according to the latest surveys."