Will the New Year Bring an All-Out Civil War in the Republican Party?

The $1.5 or $1.8 or even $2 trillion tax giveaway to the rich hadn't even been passed in final form in Congress and House Speaker Paul Ryan was talking safety net cuts. The tax giveaway is thus doing double duty—rewarding the Republican donor class and giving Ryan the excuse he needs to do the thing he's been dreaming about since he was a budding sociopath at his frat parties: punishing the poors and the olds. But Ryan's singular obsession is not widely shared among Republicans who want to keep their jobs, namely most of the Senate Republicans. So Mitch McConnell has been out in public, throwing cold water on Ryan's dream.

“The sensitivity of entitlements is such that you almost have to have a bipartisan agreement in order to achieve a result," McConnell told reporters at a news conference last week.

Other key Republicans are clearly loath to turn to such a sharply partisan pursuit after grueling fights over Obamacare and taxes. Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), a swing vote during the Obamacare repeal fight this summer, quickly changed the subject when asked about Ryan’s entitlement reform push.

“Well, I’d like to see us pivot to infrastructure. We’ve talked it all year, the president talked about it,” Capito said. “I think it could be a bipartisan exercise. I would certainly hope so.”

The clash illustrates the dilemma that congressional GOP leaders face early next year: How to sketch out an election-year agenda that unifies House and Senate Republicans and satisfies the conservative base without further risking their already-imperiled majorities.

Remember that McConnell already lost two votes over Medicaid cuts. Sens. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) and Susan Collins (R-ME) bolted over that issue when Trumpcare failed in the Senate this fall. Having lost one vote in the caucus with Democrat Doug Jones' win in Alabama, McConnell can't do it, even under the budget reconciliation process, which requires a simple majority vote, he used to pass the tax bill. He also doesn't want to lose any more of the advantage he's got in 2018. The Senate map for the midterms is much rougher on Democrats, but with a wave building he doesn't want it to turn into the tsunami that could put Republican open seats in Arizona and Tennessee in play, or further damage Dean Heller in Nevada.

That's not lost on the guy in charge of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, Sen. Cory Gardner (R-CO). His job is protecting Republican seats and claiming new ones. He wants no talk of a fight over social insurance programs. "We're going to have a narrow majority next year. […] We're going to have our hands full with nominations and an infrastructure bill and a bipartisan agenda." Not that we can actually expect a bipartisan agenda coming out of these people, but it's nice to say the word in interviews and have a Politico reporter pretend that you mean it. But there's a difference between carrying out a partisan agenda and committing political suicide by taking health care away from tens of thousands of your constituents. That's something Ryan and his merry band of nihilists don't have to worry about in their gerrymandered districts.

But it's our job to keep the rest of the Republicans scared. That means setting Democrats up now for big 2018 wins. It means helping to put the congressional majority in Democrats' hands.

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