It’s been not quite two months’ time since Republicans won a sweeping midterm victory, and already they seem divided, embattled and — not to mince words — freaked out. For good reason, I might add.

Sen. Lindsey Graham captured the mood with his mordant assessment of the lame-duck Congress: “Harry Reid has eaten our lunch.” Graham’s complaint was that the GOP acquiesced to a host of Democratic initiatives — giving President Obama a better-than-expected deal on taxes, eliminating “don’t ask, don’t tell,” ratifying the New START treaty — rather than wait for the new, more conservative Congress to arrive.

It was a “capitulation … of dramatic proportions,” Graham said in a radio interview last week. “I can understand the Democrats being afraid of the new Republicans. I can’t understand Republicans being afraid of the new Republicans.”

Oh, but there’s reason to be very afraid.

I don’t want to overstate the Republicans’ predicament. They did, after all, take control of the House and win six more seats in the Senate. But during the lame-duck session, it seemed to dawn on GOP leaders that they begin the new Congress burdened with great expectations — but lacking commensurate power. It’s going to be a challenge for Republicans just to maintain party unity, much less enact the kind of conservative agenda they promised to their enthusiastic, impatient voters.

In the Senate, there could be as many as 11 Republicans who might defect and vote with the Democrats, depending on the issue. There’s a small but newly assertive group of moderates — Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins of Maine, Scott Brown of Massachusetts and independent Lisa Murkowski of Alaska — along with newcomer Mark Kirk of Illinois, who seem likely to fit that mold. And judging by the vote tallies in the lame-duck session, a half-dozen other GOP senators are willing to go their own way.

This means that if Majority Leader Reid plays his cards well — and recently he has been playing very well indeed — it will be difficult for Minority Leader Mitch McConnell to keep enough of his troops together to sustain a filibuster. The new Senate will be considerably more Republican than the old Senate, but whether it’s actually more conservative remains to be seen.

On the other side of the Capitol it’s a different story, with the tea party movement ousting Speaker Nancy Pelosi. The new House will be decidedly more conservative than the old House — and that’s the problem.

The presumptive next speaker, John Boehner, can easily block initiatives that Obama proposes. But Boehner has said repeatedly that he understands how tentative his majority is and how temporary it could prove to be. My reading of the electorate is that voters want Congress to tackle big problems, rather than waste the next two years mired in gridlock. But not all of the necessary solutions will go over well with the tea party crowd.

The most obvious example is the ballooning national debt. “Cut wasteful spending” is a nice campaign slogan, but it’s flat-out impossible to cut enough spending to close the budget gap. And now the big goodies-for-everyone tax deal has been signed into law. Likewise, “entitlement reform” sounds good — but ignores the fact that beneficiaries of government programs feel, well, entitled.

Any comprehensive solution that sets the nation on a path toward fiscal health will mean that at least some of us pay higher taxes. I wish Boehner luck in explaining this fact of life to his tea party freshmen. He’ll have a hard enough time even persuading them to keep the government solvent by voting to increase the debt ceiling, which will soon be necessary.

Of course, Boehner will be able to win Democratic votes for legislation that absolutely, positively has to pass. But if I know Pelosi, who will be minority leader, she’ll exact concessions.

Republicans face what, for them, is an unpleasant but inescapable reality. Ideologically, most Americans describe themselves as moderate or conservative; but when it comes to getting assistance from the government, most Americans are moderate or liberal. Look at health care, the issue that won the election for the GOP. According to polls, voters clearly favor the benefits that Obama’s reforms will provide. All they really oppose is the insurance mandate that makes those benefits possible.

The idea of small, limited government may be appealing, but this is a big, complicated country. As some Republicans already know, and others soon will learn.

Eugene Robinson’s e-mail address is eugenerobinson(at)

© 2010, Washington Post Writers Group

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