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Shutdown fight threatens GOP rebrand before it has even begun

Republican leaders want to position themselves as a party that can do more than just leap from crisis to crisis. They're already heading for a crisis.
Senator-elect, U.S. Rep. Cory Gardner delivers his victory speech to supporters during a GOP election night gathering at the Hyatt Regency Denver Tech Center, in Denver, Colo. on Nov. 4, 2014. (Brennan Linsley/AP)
Senator-elect, U.S. Rep. Cory Gardner delivers his victory speech to supporters during a GOP election night gathering at the Hyatt Regency Denver Tech Center, in Denver, Colo. on Nov. 4, 2014.

In a year in which many Republicans won tough elections, Sen.-elect Cory Gardner’s campaign in blue-trending Colorado is being held up by all sides as a model for the party.

What was his secret? Gardner presented himself to voters as an optimistic “new kind of Republican” who would work with Democrats on breaking through gridlock. As evidence of his good faith, Gardner decried Republican leaders for not working on issues like immigration reform and even broke with the House GOP to oppose a bill deporting DREAMers. Exit polls showed him making inroads with women and Latino voters, two groups Republicans have struggled to win over in the Obama era.

RELATED: Welcome to the immigration shutdown fight

So what is the first issue Gardner is being asked about now that Congress is back in session? A looming shutdown fight over immigration led by the GOP’s most conservative members. Understandably, Gardner isn’t too happy with this development. "There's no time, place or purpose of a government shutdown or default," Gardner said Friday on msnbc’s "Morning Joe." "That's simply ridiculous and something that a mature governing body doesn't even contemplate. We ought to make it very clear that that's simply not acceptable."

Gardner’s not alone in his revulsion at the idea of another shutdown fight over the White House’s pending action, which could potentially protect millions of undocumented immigrants from deportation, including the parents of children who are American citizens and immigrants with high tech skills. Newly elected National Republican Senatorial Committee chairman Roger Wicker offered a similar message Friday. “We’re not going to have any government shutdowns,” he said. “We’re not going to have any threats of impeachment.”

Republican leaders are deeply concerned about being further branded as a party that lurches from crisis to crisis with no clear agenda of its own. Incoming Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has ruled out a shutdown, while House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy has talked about avoiding “cliffs” of any kind. The idea is to focus on proving Republicans can put forth positive ideas rather than careen from one showdown to another with President Obama, often fighting with fellow Republicans as much as with Democrats over how to gain tactical advantage.

On paper, it’s easy to see why this would be attractive as the party prepares for a presidential election that will feature a more diverse and moderate electorate than 2014’s low-turnout midterms. They especially want to avoid ugly flare-ups over immigration that might repel Latino voters, who were a bit player in 2014 races but could be a decisive voting bloc in 2016 presidential and Senate states. But cracks are showing in the strategy: 59 Republicans have signed onto a letter asking party leaders to include language blocking Obama from taking action on deportations in must-pass funding bills. Now Republicans are spending their honeymoon period after the elections taking potshots at each other over their demands. 

"There is no one more strong than me against unilateral action by the president on this subject,” House Appropriations Chairman Hal Rogers told reporters on Thursday. “However, like it has been said before, don't take a hostage you can't shoot." 

RELATED: Is President Obama making the right call on immigration?

Among conservative commentators, talk like that smacks of surrender. Arizona Rep. Matt Salmon, who has been leading the conservative effort to use funding bills to block Obama’s executive action, suggested as much the same day. "It's really tragic that before we even fight a fight, or even stake a claim that we're throwing in the towel,” Salmon told reporters. “I just don't think that's the way to operate. We don't have to talk about ultimatum scenarios at this point in time."

If House Speaker John Boehner and McConnell can’t soothe conservative outrage over Obama’s coming immigration move, the first act of the new GOP could look a lot like the old GOP. Washington will fall into the same familiar script: Republican leaders try to stave off disaster, conservatives will revolt, and then the story will become whether the GOP leaders in Congress can keep their members together or whether they’ll need Democratic help to keep the lights on in Washington. It’s a drama that’s played out over and over again. If the next month follows the same trajectory, then politicians like Gardner, whose fellow newly elected Republicans ran more traditional red meat campaigns, will look more like a novelty than a trend.