House GOP's geographic divide

During fiscal-cliff talks, moderate Northeast Republicans were more willing to give ground.

Posted: January 07, 2013

WASHINGTON - Inside HC-5, a conference room at the end of a long, dimly lit corridor in the basement of the Capitol, a New Year's Day insurrection simmered among House Republicans.

A deal to avert the fiscal cliff had come down from the Senate, but many in the House Republican caucus' energized and often indignant right wing didn't like what they saw. Taxes would rise. Where were the spending cuts?

They wanted to send the bill back with amendments the Senate would never accept. To some, it didn't matter if that would mean a stalemate that plunged the country over the fiscal cliff, bringing higher taxes on everyone and potentially sending the economy back into recession.

A few hours later, as another meeting broke up and legislators again filed out of HC-5, two rifts within the Republican Party would be laid bare on the House floor, showing stark differences between the moderate GOP congressmen from the Philadelphia area and South Jersey and their hard-right colleagues who have held increasing sway since the tea party wave of 2010.

First, GOP lawmakers from this region would vote to support the fiscal-cliff compromise, going against the fire-breathing tide in their own party and in favor of the bipartisan deal.

Then, just moments after that vote, they would launch their own rebellion against some of the same GOP forces that opposed the cliff deal, unleashing a torrent of fury on fellow Republicans whose unyielding opposition to any new borrowing and spending also helped scuttle a vote on $60 billion in relief from Sandy.

"Now we have to hear from people in Florida, Louisiana, and Texas and Alabama, and, yes, some people from California and the Midwest, when they have a disaster and we were there for them, that the rules are going to change for us?" roared Rep. Frank LoBiondo, a Republican whose district includes much of the Jersey Shore. "Absurd. Absolutely absurd! We deserve nothing less than we have given the rest of the country."

(New Jersey officials often point out that for every dollar that goes out of the state in federal taxes, only 55 cents comes back, meaning much of the state's dollars flow to the regions sometimes touted as "the real America.")

Rep. Peter King, a New York Republican, said people in his party from other parts of the country "become very sanctimonious" when dealing with New York and New Jersey. "The dismissive attitude" on the bill typified "a strain" in the GOP, he said.

"I can't imagine that type of indifference, that type of disregard, that cavalier attitude, being shown to any other part of the country," King said.

Republicans, he said, "have no problem finding New York when it comes to raising money. It's only when it comes to allocating money that they can't find the ability to do it."

By contrast, Rep. Pat Meehan, a Delaware County Republican, went to the House floor after the Sandy vote was pulled to advocate for his fellow Northeasterners even though his district was largely unaffected.

A similar geographic divide showed up on the cliff: While Northeast Republicans were willing to move toward a middle ground, on the other side were deep-red Republicans from deep-red districts who see compromise as surrender.

King told the Washington Post, "There are times I don't feel comfortable" with his Republican colleagues. "Not so much on particular policies, as with the tone and the attitude."

LoBiondo was asked Friday if fellow Republicans look at the Northeast differently.

"I don't know if they think about it, but it's kind of clear they do," he said. "There's just different attitudes in different parts of the country."

Every Republican congressman from the Philadelphia region and South Jersey voted for the agreement. (So, too, did King.) They argued that it was better to maintain lower taxes for most Americans and avoid the economic consequences of going over the cliff.

These are legislators who live in and around Philadelphia or New Jersey, two of the bluest places on the U.S. map. They live in counties that voted Republicans into Congress but supported Barack Obama for president. Many of their neighbors and constituents are likely to lean left on some issues and right on others.

"The Republicans on the East Coast, if they were in the South, they wouldn't be Republicans. They'd be Democrats," said Michael Federici, a political scientist at Mercyhurst College in Erie.

But they are increasingly rare in a House caucus rife with Republicans from districts so conservative that compromise is a political liability.

The enthusiasm of such Republicans has helped their party take control of the House and focus on the growing national debt, but their all-or-nothing approach hampers deal-making for Obama - and for their own leader, House Speaker John A. Boehner, who yanked the Sandy bill in part to appease his right flank.

Their zeal figures to be a continuing factor as lawmakers in the coming weeks tackle another fight over government spending, and more votes on Sandy relief.

"I think our Northeast region has always been results-oriented," LoBiondo said in an interview. "We look for a commonsense, results-oriented approach."

That approach, though, is often at odds with the stances of many of their newest colleagues, as last week's brawls so clearly showed.

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