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Will GOP unite before next fiscal fight?

Anyone who thought Republicans were too focused on spending cuts in the "fiscal cliff" negotiations should brace themselves for what's next.

Tuesday's votes on the "fiscal cliff" deal divided the GOP: More than half of House Republicans voted against it, primarily complaining about its lack of spending cuts. Yet on the Senate side, all but three Republicans supported the measure.

A couple of the Senate's most conservative Republicans say they understand why their House counterparts opposed the bill -- it's littered with special-interest giveaways, was secretly drafted in the dead of night and extends spending on programs like unemployment insurance without paying for them. At the same time, those senators say, those House Republicans may have been too concerned about their outsider, tea party reputations to accept the overwhelming upside of the bill -- making the Bush-era tax rates permanent for nearly all Americans.

"This is not meant to reduce the deficit," Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., told about the "fiscal cliff" deal. "This was meant to reduce taxes. The deficit is a different issue."

The nation's spending habit, however, is exactly the issue that will be on the table in a matter of weeks from now, when Congress will have to raise the debt limit, as well as reconsider the "sequester" spending cuts that were only put on hold for two months in the "fiscal cliff" bill.

Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., another conservative who voted for the "fiscal cliff" deal, said voters can expect to see "a strongly united Republican party coming out of this."

"I think what the American public is going to see is President Obama's campaign pledge," he said. "He made the rich pay their fair share -- he got that. Now it's very legitimate for Republicans to demand and see what is the other part of his 'balanced approach'... His tax increase, at most, will close 5 percent of the deficit. What's the other 95 percent? What's his plan to save Social Security? To save Medicare?"

A few weeks ago, many hoped the "fiscal cliff" negotiations would result in a balanced, comprehensive approach to the nation's fiscal issues. Everything seemed to be on the table: entitlement reform, the debt limit, strategic spending cuts with which to replace the sequester, and new tax revenue.

The ultimate deal, brokered by Vice President Joe Biden and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., was much more limited. Still, some conservatives saw plenty to be pleased with.

Inhofe said he was "in shock" Congress managed to pass an extension of the farm bill, a permanent fix to the alternative minimum tax, the "doc fix" for Medicare reimbursement rates and an extension of the child tax credit, among other things. He also hailed the limited increases in the estate tax and the capital gains tax, which could have gone much higher. "The only bad thing in this thing from a conservative standpoint: they've expanded unemployment insurance too far," he said.

That didn't stop right-wing commentators from berating Republicans for giving up on spending cuts. "The Republican Establishment in Washington, DC should be burned to the ground and salt spread on the remains," blogger Erick Erickson wrote. Columnist Charles Krauthammer called the bill "a complete surrender on everything."

Inhofe chalked up the angry punditry to "demagoguing," noting that he and others who supported the measure are regularly named some of the Senate's most conservative members.

On the House side, Inhofe said, "Most of the ones that would be categorized as tea partiers are those who got in [to office] being critical of the establishment and sincerely wanting less government, less taxes, less spending. We all feel that way, but they were a little afraid they'd be portrayed as insiders, thinking, 'The electorate back home elected me to do something the establishment is not doing.'"

The inclination for conservative House members to prove their tea party credentials is no doubt driven in part by the changing congressional map. House seats are safer than they've been in decades, meaning a number of House members will face more of a political threat in a primary than they would in a general election. Influential outside groups like Club for Growth told Republican congressmen that if they voted in favor of the "fiscal cliff" deal, the group would be more likely to support a primary challenge against them.

"One of the reasons I voted 'yes' was certainly to signal we're concerned about that," Johnson said with respect to pressure that House Republicans face from outside groups. "I was willing to support his thing -- as gross as it was, in many respects -- I was willing to support it because of the overall good... so that Republicans in the House could take the position [they wanted to] and recognize it kind of freed them to vote their conscience, one way or the other."

Johnson noted that Republicans in the Senate, where they are in the minority, had notably less leverage in the debate than House Republicans. He added that the bill was needed to "limit the damage" and prevent as many people as possible from seeing an income tax hike.

That said, he added that he shares the outrage House Republicans voiced "of this just totally dysfunctional process, the business here as usual in Washington where you wait 'til the very end, play brinksmanship, to shove a bill down everyone's throat."

"I have no problem with people who voted 'no' on this," he said. "This wasn't a fun 'yes.'"

Like Johnson, Republican leaders say now is the time to turn from the "fiscal cliff" to real spending cut negotiations.

"Now that the House and Senate have acted in a bipartisan way to prevent tax increases on 99 percent of the American people, Democrats now have the opportunity--and the responsibility--to join Republicans in a serious effort to reduce Washington's out-of-control spending," McConnell said in a statement yesterday about the upcoming debt limit talks. "That's a debate the American people want. It's the debate we'll have next. And it's a debate Republicans are ready for."

Club for Growth president Chris Chocola agreed the next round of talks puts the GOP in a better negotiating position. The "fiscal cliff" debate, he said, "wasn't a clean scenario with current law and rates going up, so people can argue with themselves and say, 'If I had done nothing, it'd be worse.' The debt ceiling doesn't have that application. It's pretty simple."

Republicans this time around, Chocola said, should have "a simple message, a sympathetic public and all the leverage in the world if they're willing to use it." That said, he added, "I'm never optimistic about congress doing the hard things."

Mr. Obama has made it abundantly clear that he doesn't think it's appropriate for Republicans to use the debt limit as a bargaining chip and thus threaten to let the nation default on its debt. "I will not have another debate with this Congress about whether they should pay the bills that they've already racked up through the laws that they passed," he said Tuesday night. "We can't not pay bills that we've already incurred."

Conservatives like Inhofe and Johnson, however, aren't afraid to use the debt limit as leverage. "In another month from now, all these tea party people and others are going to be together and using that as the hammer to get that done, and I feel very good about that," Inhofe said.

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