GOP shows its two faces at Capitol ritual
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WASHINGTON -- In the wake of their electoral drubbing in November, Republicans were seeking an image reboot at President Barack Obama's State of the Union address, a new face that would be both more positive and less strident, youthful and multicultural but also quietly constructive and respectful.
Then there was Ted Nugent, the 64-year-old rocker, who once told the president to "suck on my machine gun."
Mr. Nugent, a gun-rights brawler who was invited to watch Mr. Obama's address as the guest of another firebrand, Rep. Steve Stockman, R-Texas, seemed to personify the conflict still lurking within the Republican Party as its leaders look to expand their appeal.
In a House chamber filled conspicuously with the victims of gun violence and family members still grieving for lost loved ones, Mr. Nugent seemed like a provocation, a saber-toothed tiger invited to a garden party.
"I tend not to engage in inflammatory displays like that," said Rep. Charlie Dent of Pennsylvania, a Republican moderate who invited a young constituent he had nominated for the U.S. Naval Academy.
Such dissonant notes reverberated throughout the marble halls of the Capitol all day Tuesday, from the office suite of the House speaker to the floor of the Senate to a rancorous roll call for Chuck Hagel at the usually decorous Senate Armed Services Committee. It reflected the very real struggle within the party between those Republicans who believe tangible adjustments in policy and tone are needed and an equally confident core that maintains the party's problem is that it has not been conservative enough.
To be sure, the scene on the House floor as the president prepared to enter was a tableau of comity. Attorney General Eric Holder chatted with one of his fiercest critics, Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., whispered in the ear of Denis McDonough, the new White House chief of staff. Mr. Nugent sat in the top corner of the spectators' gallery on the Republican side. He stood as the president entered but did not clap.
Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida was tapped to give the official Republican response to the president's address, taking the unprecedented step for the party of preparing to speak in English and in Spanish to reach out to the Latino voters who so forsook the party in November.
"Despite our differences, I know that both Republicans and Democrats love America," he was to say, according to excerpts provided in advance of his speech. "I pray we can come together to solve our problems, because the choices before us could not be more important."
Republican senators hailed Mr. Rubio, their new spokesman and 2016 presidential hopeful, in terms that spoke to broader hopes for the party: youth, vitality, thoughtfulness.
"He'll be presenting an agenda he believes the Republican Party should be pursuing, a more positive agenda," Mr. McCain said.
Still, Mr. Rubio voted Tuesday against reauthorizing a more muscular Violence Against Women Act, an echo of his own roots on the right flank of his party.
He was one of only 22 senators to oppose the bill, which 23 Republicans and 55 Democrats endorsed.
The Republicans sent out another mixed message earlier in the day when Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington, the House Republican Conference chairwoman, kicked off the party's first official Spanish-language Twitter account, @)GOPespanol, and apologetically noted that she would have used the "n" with a tilde if Twitter could have handled it.
But last week, when House Republicans tried to begin a broader GOP en Espanol program, which was to distribute Republican reactions to the State of the Union in Spanish, the most vociferous anti-illegal immigration voices in the House objected.
"There's a conflicting message that comes out from the Republicans if we want to recognize the unifying power of English, and meanwhile, we send out communications in multiple languages," Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, told National Journal.
Official business and documents, he said, need to be in English.
The tea party's response to the State of the Union address fell to Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., no shrinking violet but a softer voice than last year's respondent, Herman Cain, or the inaugural choice in 2011, Rep. Michele Bachmann, who looked away from the camera as she denounced the "16,500 IRS agents in charge of policing President Obama's health care bill" and hailed "the early days of a history-making turn" in American governance.
Mr. Paul dismissed any suggestion that a tea party response separate from the Republican response represented party division.
"That's created by the media," he said. But, he added, his criticism would hit Democrats and Republicans alike, a promise supported by excerpts from his speech.
"Both parties have been guilty of spending too much, of protecting their sacred cows, of back-room deals in which everyone up here wins, but every taxpayer loses," he was to say. "It is time for a new bipartisan consensus ."
Republicans still held out hope that the lasting image of the night would not be such backbiting but a new tone of cooperation where possible, principle where vital -- but always civility.
"Good people will show that we're a governing party," said Sen. Mike Johanns, a soft-spoken Nebraska Republican.
First Published February 13, 2013 12:00 am