GOP drama is complicating what Republicans view as an opportunity to unite their increasingly fractious party against President Biden’s $4 trillion spending package.
Republicans tried to focus their energy this week on attacks on Biden’s plans, which include significant tax hikes on wealthy households, capital gains and corporations, as they look for a foothold heading into 2022.
Yet much of the focus all week was on the battling within the GOP — between House GOP Leader Kevin McCarthy and Rep. Liz Cheney, the third-ranking member of his leadership team, and between former President Trump and Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell.
“I don’t think it’s helpful,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), an advisor to McConnell.
Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), the No. 2 Senate Republican, called keeping GOP infighting from overshadowing more unifying messaging “our daily challenge.”
“We all have our crosses to bear and we’re trying to make sure that Republicans stay unified and instead of fighting each other, work on trying to make sure that we’re articulating a vision for the country that’s built around Republican principles and not a massive big government and high taxes policies,” he said.
The latest round of infighting comes as Republicans are already facing big headaches on their political fortunes as they struggle to dent Biden, who many acknowledge they like personally, roughly 100 days into his administration.
Biden’s approval ratings remain over 50 percent as people continue to get vaccinated, which is creating good economic news for the White House and new momentum. On Thursday, the government reported the economy grew at a 6.4 percent annual rate in the first quarter, increasing confidence in a strong rebound this year.
Democrats enjoy a tiny majority in the House and the Senate is evenly split, spurring hopes among Republicans that they can win back control of Congress in next year’s midterms, when the sitting president’s party has historically lost seats.
GOP leadership views opposition to Biden’s infrastructure proposal and his plan to do undo parts of the 2017 tax bill as a unifier. And in a win for holding the 50 GOP senators together, several moderates were quick to pan the combined $4 trillion in spending proposed by Biden.
“I worry that it would ignite inflation which is very harmful to our economy,” Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) said about the combined $4 trillion price tag.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), another key swing vote for Democrats, said she “was not overly inspired,” and Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) told reporters “I’m sure Bernie was happy.”
But even as Republicans are unifying against the size of Biden’s $4 trillion plan, that’s being tested by a constant stream of headlines on their internal battles. Just 12 hours after they largely panned Biden’s speech, Trump was putting the focus back on GOP feuding.
He teed off against McConnell during a Fox Business interview, urging Senate Republicans to get a different leader. The fight is largely personal, rather than results-orientated, because McConnell keeps a firm grip on the caucus and enjoys broad support.
“I think we’re going to do very well. We need good leadership. Mitch McConnell has not done a great job, I think they should change Mitch McConnell,” Trump said.
Trump, even as he’s largely sequestered himself at Mar-A-Lago since he left office, has loomed over the future of the Republican Party.
Though the former president didn’t attend the House GOP conference in Orlando, Fla., this week, and wasn’t invited to speak, the party’s fight over its post-Trump future was on full display, and caused days of headlines about friction within the caucus.
The retreat, billed as a policy pow-wow, instead focused on the divide between McCarthy and Cheney, who are mostly battling over Trump.
Cheney, who voted to impeach Trump earlier this year, told reporters that she views McCarthy and McConnell, not Trump, as the leaders of the party.
Trump quickly hit back at Cheney and McCarthy also took a shot when asked about her remarks.
“I think from a perspective if you're sitting here at a retreat that's focused on policy, focused on the future of making America’s next century, and you're talking about something else, you're not being productive,” he said.
With Trump seeking to stay in the news cycle and flirting with a presidential bid in 2024, it seems unlikely the GOP fighting will end.
A Axios/Ipsos poll released shortly before Trump left office found that 56 percent of Republican respondents labeled themselves as “traditional Republicans” while 36 percent considered themselves to be Trump supporters. Between the two groups, 92 percent of Trump supporters want him to be the party’s 2024 nominee compared to 41 percent of traditional Republicans.
A Suffolk University/USA TODAY poll survey of self-identified Trump supporters released in late February found that 46 percent compared to 27 percent said they would abandon the GOP if Trump started a new party. Seventy six percent said they would support Trump if he runs again in 2024. And a Reuters/Ipsos poll released in April found that six out of 10 Republicans believe Trump’s false claim that the election was “stolen,” roughly three months after the Capitol attack.
Senate Republicans, trying to keep the focus on policy and 2022, have largely avoided giving the former president a reason to train his ire on them.
McConnell repeatedly has signaled that he doesn’t want to keep fighting in public with Trump, and he did not respond in kind to the former president on Thursday.
“Well look, we're looking to the future, not the past. And if you want to see the future of the Republican Party, watch Tim Scott's response to President Biden last night,” McConnell told Fox News, referring to the GOP senator from South Carolina who provided the response to Biden.
Scott, the only Black GOP senator and a potential 2024 contender, touted wins from the Trump-era but only said the word “Trump” just once in his address. McConnell’s office, when it sent out a press release of his Fox News interview, highlighted his criticism of Biden’s spending plan. Not directly mentioned were the questions he got about Trump.
But Republicans also acknowledge that preventing the infighting from overshadowing the party’s larger message is in many ways out of their hands.
“That’s the problem. There’s no way anybody other than the former president himself can control that,” Cornyn said.
Thune added that Republicans should be focused on a unified objective of winning back the House and Senate majority in 2022 and “hopefully even though we have at times what appears to be a lot of sort of finger pointing … that in the end people will unify around that objective.”