Congress chaos exposes US Republican divide ahead of 2016

 House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy (L) makes a statement to the news media after withdrawing his name for Speaker of the House on Capitol Hill in Washington DC on 8 October.
House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy (L) makes a statement to the news media after withdrawing his name for Speaker of the House on Capitol Hill in Washington DC on 8 October. REUTERS

WASHINGTON (AFP) - US Republicans have feuded since 2011. Now with the latest Washington chaos over who rises to House speaker, the GOP competes for the presidency struggling to show it can govern without compromising conservative doctrine.

Both principles are currently at risk, and Republican lawmakers and analysts alike stress it will be a delicate high wire act for the party to project backbone and statecraft as it seeks to end Democratic rule after eight years of Barack Obama.

But while this week's images of hardcore conservatives battling with establishment leadership in Congress may produce dreadful short-term optics, the political pandemonium might well be propelling the very wave that anti-Washington Republicans seek to ride all the way to the Oval Office.

Number two House Republican Kevin McCarthy quit the speaker's race Thursday (Oct 8), sabotaged by a conservative revolt, and the challenge is on to find a consensus candidate who can soothe wounds and unite a fractious caucus.

With crunch votes in the coming weeks on extending US borrowing authority and finalising a budget deal, the Republicans who control both chambers of Congress will be under intense pressure to demonstrate their leadership skills in the runup to the 2016 presidential election.

"The Republican Party is in disarray in Washington, but out there we know what we stand for across America," Congressman Tim Huelskamp, a Tea-Party backed conservative, told AFP on Friday.

"We've got a Washington, DC problem, not a Republican problem." Presidential polling bears that out. The top three Republican hopefuls, led by billionaire tycoon Donald Trump, are outsiders who have never held public office.

"We're just going through a purification process, we're correcting ourselves as we go," Representative Barry Loudermilk added after a closed-door Republican meeting as he downplayed the chaos over the speakership fight. "In the long run, it's going to empower us."

In the never-ending political scheming that dominates the US capital, Republicans' immediate difficulty is finding someone - 2012 vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan, perhaps - who can adeptly wield the speaker's gavel upon the departure of outgoing Speaker John Boehner.

Conservatives confronted Boehner at will over fiscal issues, forcing a crippling government shutdown in 2013 and bringing the United States to the brink of credit default in 2011.

Should Republicans nominate someone from Boehner cloth, or capitulate to demands of hard-right conservatives?

"I don't see this really getting resolved until after the 2016 election," Robert Boatright, associate professor of political science at Clark University, said of the broader ideological standoff.

The divide has widened since 2010. After many centrist Republicans lost their seats in 2006 and 2008, Boatright noted, a conservative wave brought in dozens of Republican newbies who preached intransigence but had little governing experience.

- 'Can we actually govern?' -

That ideological muscle over pragmatic compromise is dominating some Republican circles in Congress and is seeping into the presidential race.

"There's no way to really placate the far right and govern at this point, and that's the problem facing the Republican Party," said James Thurber, an American University professor and author of the upcoming book "American Gridlock."

While some Republicans exited Friday's huddle warning about conservatives hijacking the House - the revolt "should have been crushed a long time ago," steamed congressman Peter King - others described it as growing pains within the majority party.

"Soon enough we will get through this, and there'll be 1,000 other things that happen between now and the presidential elections," House Republican Mario Diaz-Balart said.

He stressed the ongoing chaos would have little impact on 2016.

"If we were like this through the November elections, then yes," Diaz-Balart added. "But I don't see that happening. I think we will coalesce." Not everyone was so sure this week's speakership turmoil and presidential politics were unrelated.

"I think this is part of the narrative in the 2016 elections. Can the governing majority actually govern? And we appear right now not to be governable," said Steve Womack, a moderate Republican.

With lawmakers headed home Friday for an upcoming district work week, Womack was concerned that constituents will not be asking him about budget negotiations, the debt ceiling or the war in Syria.

"What they're going to be asking me is, 'When are you guys going to get your fill-in-the-blank together?'" he said.