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Political Fissures on Both Sides of the Aisle

March 13, 2013

Americans have watched Washington ricochet from one manufactured crisis to another, damaging both parties and President Obama's approval ratings. The January Pew Research survey found fewer Americans than ever trusting government's decisions.

This situation is creating internal divisions within the Republican and Democratic parties that will further complicate things in Washington. Let's begin with the GOP.

Last week, Sen. Rand Paul filibustered John Brennan's nomination to head the CIA. The filibuster was triggered by Sen. Paul's unhappiness with Attorney General Eric Holder's muddled responses regarding whether the president could order a drone strike on a U.S. citizen on American soil who was suspected of terrorist ties but wasn't an imminent threat.

Almost all Republicans agree with Sen. Paul's opposition to domestic drone strikes. Far fewer share his opposition to attacks abroad on American terrorists and enemy combatants. A case in point is Anwar al-Awlaki, the New Mexican-born Muslim cleric who led al Qaeda's Yemen affiliate until he was killed by a U.S. drone strike in 2011. Sen. Paul saw "no reason" that Awlaki wasn't "given representation and tried" in federal court.

Some libertarians view the war on terror much like many on the Democratic Party's left, as more of a law-enforcement issue than war. This foreshadows a robust intra-Republican foreign-policy debate, especially if Sen. Paul runs for president in 2016.

Another fault line involves roughly 20 or so Republican House members who would sometimes rather block passage of a GOP bill than support something that doesn't conform fully with their views. This freezes the Republican caucus into inaction and makes it difficult for the House GOP to pass legislation.

Then there is the defense budget, which most congressional Republicans believe the president already has cut too deeply. But they aren't willing to try softening the sequester's military cuts. They are concerned that doing so would cause the entire sequester to unravel, ending the chance for even its modest reduction in future spending.

There's more. Congressional Republicans are divided over immigration reform. Restive moderates may tire of voting for House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan's budget blueprints, stuffed full of entitlement reforms they must defend. Seemingly every Republican has a different idea about tax reform, complicating Ways and Means Chairman Dave Camp's efforts to write a bill.

Democrats face their own disagreements, potentially bigger and certainly more problematic for the president.

In the Senate, Democrats are so divided over taxes and spending that Majority Leader Harry Reid has prevented consideration of a budget resolution for four years. He's done so to avoid forcing politically vulnerable Democrats to take tough votes that would mark them as tax-and-spend liberals. This vacation from governing ends next week when the Senate will finally consider a budget resolution. It reportedly includes a $1 trillion tax hike that senators from red or purple states may not like.

Swing state and rural Democrats don't share the White House's enthusiasm for gun control. Democrats may be divided over immigration, too, with many resisting a guest-worker program. Many also oppose the president's climate-change agenda: Nine Democratic senators wrote Mr. Obama last month to urge approval of the Keystone XL pipeline. Virtually every Democrat opposes drone strikes on U.S. soil, but many object to them on anyone abroad, too.

Politico reported on March 10 that despite Mr. Obama's words supporting entitlement reform, more than half of House Democrats pledged to vote "against any and every cut to Medicare, Medicaid or Social Security." The opposition to change includes opposition to raising the retirement age, which the president says he is open to.

Some Democrats are worried about the political headwinds the president's liberal agenda is creating. His policies "reflect a tone-deafness to the challenges they face competing for moderate and conservative-leaning seats," Politico reported on Monday.

The GOP's division isn't unexpected, given that the party just lost a presidential election. Out of intraparty debates can emerge new issues, arguments and leaders. That happened in the late 1970s, when Ronald Reagan embraced supply-side economics and fundamentally transformed the GOP.

For a sitting president's party to begin fracturing this early into his second term is more unusual. As a second-term president, Mr. Obama will learn that his power recedes with nearly every passing day. But governing as an unabashed liberal, badly overplaying his hand on sequestration, and displaying contempt for Congress may be accelerating the process.

A version of this article appeared March 14, 2013, on page A15 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Political Fissures on Both Sides of the Aisle, and online at WSJ.com

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