GOP rift over 'fiscal cliff': Are 'Dole Republicans' on the rise?

Former Sen. Bob Dole visited the Capitol Tuesday. His brand of conservatism – leaning more toward pragmatism and compromise – may be gaining some ground amid the fiscal cliff standoff.

Courtesy of CSPAN2/AP
This video image shows former Kansas Sen. Bob Dole (r.) wheeled into the Senate Chamber on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Dec. 4, by his wife, Elizabeth Dole. Mr. Dole paid a rare visit to the Capitol in support of a United Nations treaty on disability rights.

Former Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas paid a rare visit to the Capitol Tuesday in support of a United Nations treaty on disability rights.

While that effort ultimately proved in vain – the treaty was defeated by conservative Republicans – Mr. Dole’s appearance in some ways served as a timely symbol of the larger battle going on within the GOP.

The former GOP majority leader, who has recently been hospitalized, just so happened to visit at a time when his party is struggling with a sharp, public rift over the “fiscal cliff.” Lines have been drawn between traditional “establishment” members – call them Dole Republicans – who tend to be more pragmatic and inclined to compromise, and tea party types determined to hold the line on taxes and spending.

Dole was a key player in Washington’s last big, bipartisan deficit-reduction deal: He helped construct the 1990 agreement in which President George H.W. Bush famously broke his “no new taxes” pledge in return for promised concessions from Democrats on spending and entitlement reform. That bill proved to be instrumental in reducing the deficit in coming years – though Mr. Bush never got credit, since he lost reelection to Bill Clinton, a fate conservatives have linked ever since to Bush’s tax heresy.

Since then, the party has shifted further to the right, with most Republican lawmakers signing on to Grover Norquist's pledge to never raise taxes. But lately, there have been signs of a possible countershift, as more Republicans appear open to the notion of tax hikes in some form.

As Washington wrestles with dire choices on taxes and spending, the big question is whether, in the current GOP, old-school dealmakers like Dole are little more than a dying breed – or if they may, in fact, become ascendant once more.

Certainly, in recent years, it has seemed more like the former. One after another, members of the old guard – like outgoing Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana and former Sen. Bob Bennett of Utah – have been ousted by challengers on the right, largely over fiscal matters. But in some cases (such as Senator Lugar’s), those primary challengers wound up leading the GOP into embarrassing losses – which has lately led to new cries for the reassertion of a stronger pragmatic wing.

In an opinion piece in Monday’s New York Times, former Republican National Committee research director David Welch wrote: “Republicans must now identify those who can bring adult supervision back to the party.... Dare I say it, or should I just whisper the word? We need 'the Establishment.' " 

While conservative groups like the antitax Club for Growth are still threatening to fund primary challenges against lawmakers who don’t hold the line on taxes, those representing the more establishment wing – like GOP strategist Karl Rove – are now indicating they may play a bigger role in primaries as well, Mr. Welch notes.

House Speaker John Boehner’s decision Monday to strip several conservative House members of plum committee assignments may also reflect a new assertion of strength in the party’s pragmatic wing.

The intraparty battle is far from over, of course, and the ultimate winner may not be known for some time. But at the moment, there seems to be at least some political wind at the back of the Dole Republicans. And that in itself is not insignificant.

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