Debate Rages Over Price of GOP Pragmatism

Posted September 21, 2010 at 6:56pm

Following a contentious GOP primary season, an intraparty debate has ensued over the importance Senate Republican leaders have placed on pursuing a majority, which has sometimes resulted in their embrace of moderates who hold viewpoints that make conservatives wince.

Most Republican Senators across the party’s ideological spectrum argue against imposing a philosophical litmus test on GOP candidates and prefer to err on the side of winning as many seats as possible. They contend that controlling the Senate floor and running the chamber’s committees carries inherent value, and that only under this scenario can a center-right governing coalition hope to enact conservative legislation and block a liberal agenda.

“I think you want to maximize the number of Republicans that you can elect because in order to govern — in order to set the agenda and organize the Senate — it starts with getting a majority,” Senate Republican Policy Committee Chairman John Thune (S.D.) said Tuesday. “Obviously, it would [be] nice if that would be a conservative majority. But there are certain places in the country where you’re not going to elect the same brand of Republican.”

“I’m for the most conservative, electable candidate,” added National Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairman John Cornyn (Texas). Both Cornyn and Thune received a perfect score for their 2009 voting records from the American Conservative Union. Cornyn’s lifetime ACU rating is 93.14 out of 100; Thune’s is 87.87.

The notion of retaking control of the Senate as paramount, as expressed by Cornyn and Thune, tends to reflect the views of the 41-member Republican Senate Conference — from the conservatives to the moderates, from the veteran pragmatists to the self-styled deal-makers. But a few conservatives quibble with the notion that getting to 51 seats — and beyond — requires growing the caucus with Republicans prone to straying from the party’s core positions.

First-term Sen. Tom Coburn, a stalwart conservative who has shown little interest in compromising and cutting deals during his Capitol Hill career, said flatly that doing so is unnecessary, although he conceded he would prefer to be in the majority.

“I think the Republican Party ought to give Americans what they want — that’s a government that’s efficient, that doesn’t waste money, that doesn’t spend money it doesn’t have on things it doesn’t need — and that’s the prime thing that’s important to the American people,” the Oklahoma Republican said. “I would love to have a majority. But we’ll find out after Nov. 2,”

[IMGCAP(1)]Sen. Jim DeMint, who has been highly critical of his party’s performance when it last held the majority and accused his fellow Republicans of losing their way philosophically, allowed that it would be necessary to accept new GOP Senators who are less conservative than he is if the party is to regain majority status.

But the South Carolina Republican suggested that philosophical flexibility ought to have limits. He also disputed the contention by GOP Senate leaders that conservative candidates are less electable in swing states and Democratic strongholds. In Democratic-leaning Delaware, DeMint backed the conservative candidate in the GOP Senate primary and the eventual winner, Christine O’Donnell, while the GOP leadership backed moderate Rep. Mike Castle, the only Republican to hold statewide office in several years.

DeMint said he would like to see Republicans gain control of the 60 seats needed to overcome a filibuster.

“My goal is to get to 60, and I think it’s very possible by 2012 to do that. But we won’t be able to do that if America doesn’t see a different Republican Party than the last time we had the majority,” he said. “We had the majority. Folks think we spent too much, we borrowed too much, we grew the government too much. And that’s the question I get all over the country now: If you get the majority again, are you going to do the same thing you did last time?”

Division in the GOP primaries was particularly acute in Alaska, Delaware, Florida, Pennsylvania and Utah. In Alaska and Utah, Senate Republican leaders backed the incumbent GOP Senator, only to see conservative activists and primary voters reject them. In Pennsylvania, Sen. Arlen Specter left the GOP to become a Democrat and spared Senate Republican leaders from facing a similar situation.

In Delaware and Florida, the leadership initially backed Republican primary candidates deemed more electable than the individuals who were ultimately nominated by GOP voters. Republicans from Democratic-leaning states — some moderate, some who cross party lines only occasionally — do not appear to take any umbrage with what occurred in those elections.

But they caution against imposing any philosophical litmus tests and emphasize that the GOP should function as a broad coalition that accepts many different ideas and viewpoints. Republicans, they say, should focus on what unites them.

“I’ve always felt that we need a big tent. We need a party where everybody’s thoughts and ideas are respected and that we can try to find common ground on a whole host of issues,” Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.) said. “I know we all agree that we’re spending too much, that our taxes are too high, that we need to get our national security issues addressed, and the deficit is out of control. We can at least agree on those things.”

Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) said she agreed with sentiments expressed by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). In a recent interview with Roll Call, he said that what it takes for a Republican to win in Maine is different than what it takes to win in South Carolina.

“We should welcome as many people as possible to join the Republican cause,” she said.