GOP civil war over Sandy disaster relief

Errol Louis says House Speaker John Boehner is caught between pragmatic and radical factions in his party.

Story highlights

  • Errol Louis: The conflict over Sandy relief reflects deep division in Republican Party
  • He says the House majority is split between pragmatic pols and radical budget cutters
  • John Boehner is caught in the middle, trying to keep a lid on the battle, Louis says
  • Louis: Complaints, threats by Christie, King show they fear the aid request will be chopped

The battle over relief funding for areas devastated by Superstorm Sandy should leave no doubt about whether there is a war within the Republican Party over the fundamentals of taxation and spending.

On one side are old-school pols who are committed to reducing government deficits but willing to engage in traditional horse-trading with their big-spending liberal colleagues -- and to support items such as relief for disasters, which can strike any region of the country at any time.

On the other side are dyed-in-the-wool budget radicals, who believe government spending must be curtailed, deeply and immediately. They are perfectly comfortable slicing, delaying or crippling normally sacrosanct programs, including disaster relief.

The two sides are engaged in an old-fashioned power struggle, with Speaker of the House John Boehner as the man in the middle, trying to keep a lid on the battle. The factional fighting delayed and nearly destroyed the fiscal cliff negotiations, with Boehner unable to persuade most of his Republican members to vote for a compromise bill that kept taxes from increasing for nearly all Americans.

Errol Louis

Politics: Furor over dropped vote defuses

Trying to get a vote on hurricane relief the same night proved to be a bridge too far. Boehner, struggling to keep his divided caucus in line -- and facing a critical vote to renew his speakership -- decided to kill the aid bill.

It might have kept the budget hawks happy for a moment, but Republicans in New York and New Jersey were furious. And the mood turned ugly.

Rarely do public accusations of political betrayal sound as personal -- at times, nearly shrill -- as the howls that came from New York and New Jersey Republicans over Boehner's last-minute refusal to allow a promised vote on $60 billion worth of relief for areas hard hit by Sandy.

"The speaker just decided to pull the vote. He gave no explanation," said Rep. Michael Grimm, a tea party member who is the sole remaining Republican member of Congress from New York City. "I feel I was misled from the very beginning," he said in a radio interview.

Rep. Peter King, a senior New York Republican, was even blunter. "This has been a betrayal of trust," he said. "We were told at every stage that [a vote] was definitely going on. It is inexcusable. It is wrong."

Meeks: Put aside politics for Sandy aid
Meeks: Put aside politics for Sandy aid

    JUST WATCHED

    Meeks: Put aside politics for Sandy aid

MUST WATCH

Meeks: Put aside politics for Sandy aid 04:23
PLAY VIDEO
Hoyer on Sandy inaction: 'It's a tragedy'
Hoyer on Sandy inaction: 'It's a tragedy'

    JUST WATCHED

    Hoyer on Sandy inaction: 'It's a tragedy'

MUST WATCH

Hoyer on Sandy inaction: 'It's a tragedy' 05:34
PLAY VIDEO
Republican fallout over Sandy aid
Republican fallout over Sandy aid

    JUST WATCHED

    Republican fallout over Sandy aid

MUST WATCH

Republican fallout over Sandy aid 02:53
PLAY VIDEO
Christie: Boehner wouldn't take my calls
Christie: Boehner wouldn't take my calls

    JUST WATCHED

    Christie: Boehner wouldn't take my calls

MUST WATCH

Christie: Boehner wouldn't take my calls 06:00
PLAY VIDEO

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a rising star in the Republican Party, held a news conference to attack Boehner. "It was disgusting to watch," he said. "One set of Republicans was trying to prove something to another set."

Christie put his finger on the dynamic that is likely to drive Republican politics for the next few years. A fair number of GOP members of Congress no doubt supported Boehner's move.

Rep. Darrell Issa of California, who chairs the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, took to the airwaves to denounce the $60 billion bill, specifically blaming Sens. Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand of New York.

Avlon: Christie drops bomb on GOP leaders

"They had the opportunity to have a $27 [billion] to $30 billion dollar legit relief package, packed it with pork, then dared us not to vote on it," said Issa. "The speaker has the support of the majority of Republicans that if we're going to provide relief, we can't allow it to be doubled with unrelated pork no matter where the relief is."

Translation: Republican budget hawks plan to give the areas devastated by Sandy half -- or less -- of what New York and New Jersey requested. And even powerful, nationally popular Republicans like Christie may not be able to budge them.

One sign of where the power lies -- for the moment, at least -- is the threats made by Grimm and King.

"We were betrayed. We were let down. There have to be consequences," said Grimm, who at first suggested he might not vote for Boehner to continue as speaker.

King suggested that New York's wealthy donors close their wallets to Republican leaders. "Anyone from New York or New Jersey who contributes one penny to congressional Republicans is out of their minds," he said.

Such statements betray the sort of pure frustration often voiced by men who lack the power to make good on their threats. King later pronounced himself satisfied after meeting with Boehner.

The speaker said the House will vote Friday on part of the Sandy relief package, and that the rest of the legislation will be taken up by the next Congress in about two weeks -- long enough for the different sides to catch their breath before resuming the civil war in the Republican Party.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion