WASHINGTON — The public infighting that broke out among House Republicans last week is more than a clash of egos. It mirrors the deep splits - regional, ideological, and cultural - in the GOP caucus and the party itself.
Both major American political parties are very broad coalitions representing diverse, and often conflicting, interests. The Democratic Party of the early 1960s, for example, included both Southern white segregationists and black civil-rights activists. Such party divisions often carry over into the House of Representatives.
Today's House Republicans are divided into several overlapping groups: moderates, fiscal conservatives, social conservatives, Westerners, Southerners, Northeasterners, supply-siders, budget- balancers, country folk, and urban dwellers. And the "revolutionary" sophomore class, the home of most of the dissidents involved in the recent plot to unseat Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia, continues to have a distinct identity.
"If you put up a stop sign, some of these Western Republicans would see it as government intrusion," says one Republican member, explaining the cultural divides. "They see it as their car, their road, and they'll negotiate it out with the other driver. They don't need the government involved.
"The Northeastern Republicans have the attitude that 'we founded this country....' They live in these large urban areas where they've had stop signs for generations. They laugh at what they consider these hicks from the country." Both think their brand of Republicanism is the true faith. "It's a difficult gap to bridge."
With a GOP margin in the House of only 11 votes, building and maintaining bridges between the party factions is crucial. And to pass legislation, Speaker Gingrich is forced a lot closer to the center than was necessary during the 104th Congress, upsetting some conservatives. Conversely, the margin makes it easy for a small group of malcontents to cause trouble - as this current group has done - even when they don't have the votes to carry the day.
Another challenge for Gingrich is that while the GOP has made its greatest gains in the South, the region's changeover from solidly Democratic to solidly Republican - except in districts with a significant black population - is basically complete. Republican gains in the Rocky Mountain West have also probably peaked. To keep control of the House, the GOP must retain its Northeastern members, who tend to be moderates. Rep. Christopher Shays of Connecticut calls these members the Republicans' "canaries in the coal mine."
Not only has the GOP lost House seats in New England in the last elections, Gingrich and House Republicans are less popular in the corridor from Washington to Boston than in the rest of the country, based on the returns from the last congressional election.
Little of this washes with the members of the "Class of '94," who were the GOP foot-soldiers during the government shutdowns of 1995-96 and tend to be both socially and fiscally conservative. Many of them have never held any other political office and do not aspire to long political careers.
A group of 10 to 20 sophomore dissidents say the GOP leadership, especially Gingrich, caved in to President Clinton in ending the shutdowns. They consider Gingrich to be more of a pragmatist than a true conservative. The dissidents also have also complained that the pace of this Congress is too slow.
But for now, Gingrich is seen as the only person who can bring the GOP's various factions together. It is unlikely that the 40 or so moderates would vote for majority leader Dick Armey of Texas for Speaker, and none of the other current leaders would fare any better. Few moderates could attract enough conservative votes to win the office.
Even so, the GOP agenda is moving ahead, the latest crisis averted. At a "family meeting" Wednesday night, Gingrich read passages from the Bible about forgiveness; House members vented their frustrations, heard apologies from both the leadership and the rebels, and vowed to pull together.
Success in the current negotiations with the White House over the legislation to implement the budget deal may calm things for the time being. But the divisions will remain and will surely reappear in some future debate.