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On voting, VAWA, and the debt, GOP re-opening issues long thought settled

It’s hardly news that the Republican Party has grown increasingly extreme in recent years.
GOP Reps. John Boehner, Paul Ryan, Eric Cantor, Kevin McCarthy, Jeb Hensarling (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
GOP Reps. John Boehner, Paul Ryan, Eric Cantor, Kevin McCarthy, Jeb Hensarling

It’s hardly news that the Republican Party has grown increasingly extreme in recent years. But one trend that highlights that shift particularly well is the modern GOP’s habit of re-politicizing issues on which a broad bipartisan consensus has existed for decades. And this week offered some great examples.

The Violence Against Women Act (VAWA): Since its passage in 1994, the VAWA has received almost universal support. In 2005, it was reauthorized with just four members of the House, and none in the Senate, voting against it. As msnbc's Rachel Maddow put it Thursday night, the law has become “the very picture of bipartisan, non-controversial, almost feel-good legislation.”

But it expired again in 2011, and this time Republicans decided to block its reauthorization—saying they opposed extending the law’s protections to members of the LGBT community and Native Americans. On Thursday, House Republican leaders finally caved and allowed a vote in the measure. It passed, but 138 Republicans in the House—a clear majority of the caucus—and 22 in the Senate this time voted against the law. Essentially, the party has gone on record as opposed to a law protecting women from domestic violence.

The Voting Rights Act (VRA): Similar story. Voting-rights advocates call the 1965 law—which for the first time ensured that blacks could not be kept from the polls—the most effective civil-rights measure in our history. When it was last reauthorized in 2006, only 33 House Republicans out of 231, and no Senate Republicans, voted against it. President Bush signed the extension into law.

Fast forward to this week, when the Supreme Court heard a conservative-backed challenge to the provision at the heart of the VRA. Congressional Republicans haven’t had to take a stance on the issue, but few have been rushing to defend the law. And the court’s five conservative justices seem determined to overturn it. The Voting Rights Act, once a universally approved monument to racial equality, is now controversial.

The Sequester and the Debt Limit: It used to be that raising the debt limit was seen as a routine piece of congressional business, something that needed to be done in order to ensure creditors are paid on time and the government runs smoothly. It’s been raised around 100 times since 1940.

Thanks to the GOP, that’s no longer the case these days. In 2011, House Republicans decided to use their veto power over raising the debt limit to hold the U.S. economy hostage. By doing so, they forced President Obama to agree to an unusual arrangement: If a super-committee of lawmakers couldn’t come up with spending cuts worth $1.2 trillion over the next decade, automatic cuts of that amount—known as the sequester—would go into effect. There’s been no agreement, which is why those damaging across-the-board cuts are scheduled to kick in by the end of Friday. Because the GOP turned routine parliamentary house-keeping into a chance to drive their extreme agenda, the U.S. economy is set to take a massive hit, with the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office projecting as many as 750,000 jobs could be shed.

Of course, there are plenty of other ways to chart the modern GOP’s shift toward extremism. There’s the string of primary victories by Tea Party candidates; the refusal to countenance a return to Clinton-era tax rates for the very richest Americans; the party’s increasingly open adoption of previously fringe views on abortion—like the opposition to exceptions for rape and incest. How long do you have, really?

But the GOP’s propensity to re-open previously settled issues stands out, because it highlights just how out of sync with even their own party’s history modern-day Republicans have become.  And it leaves us wondering just which previously uncontroversial law or practice the party plans to go after next.