A HOUSE DIVIDED….The three big rally-the-base votes in the Senate — ban on gay marriage, ban on flag “desecration,” and permanent repeal of the estate tax — are all expected to lose, but more importantly, they’re expected to put Democrats on the defensive while uniting Republicans and their base.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the culture war. Democrats don’t seem at all intimidated, and Republicans appear increasingly divided amongst themselves.

On the anti-gay amendment, which seven Republicans voted against today, many in the party wanted proponents of the measure to just go away.

“I know in many meetings of our colleagues when the issue of marriage comes up, heads drop,” Mr. Santorum said in a floor speech. “It is just an issue that people just feel uncomfortable talking about. It’s something that maybe in some respects they feel like, why do we even have to? Why is this even an issue?” […]

One Republican strategist, Ed Rollins, said it was a mistake for the president and Senate leaders to focus attention on a marriage ban now, in what could look like a panicked reaction to shrinking public support. “What the president needs to do is look like a leader, not be somebody who looks like a politician who is overreacting to polls,” Mr. Rollins said. “If anything, he is reminding people of what they don’t like about the Republican Party.”

The GOP is split on the estate tax, too.

Senate Republicans, pushing once again to abolish the estate tax on inherited wealth, are split about whether to push for a full repeal that would probably fail, or seek a more cautious compromise with Democrats that could pass. […]

In what is either a shrewd game of chicken or an effort to inflame the passions of crucial Republican constituencies, the Senate majority leader, Bill Frist of Tennessee, has made little effort to strike a compromise with conservative Democrats that would greatly reduce but not fully abolish the tax….. The strategy has divided Republicans.

For that matter, some top Senate Republicans are even balking on the party’s flag scheme.

Like most Democrats, two Republican senators, Robert F. Bennett of Utah and Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, have consistently opposed the measure.

“I don’t want to amend the Constitution to solve a nonproblem,” Mr. Bennett said. “People are not burning the flag. The only time they start is when this amendment gets offered.”

Indeed, opponents of the measure routinely help highlight the argument against a flag “desecration” amendment by quoting one fairly high-profile Republican:

“The First Amendment exists to ensure that freedom of speech and expression applies not just to that with which we agree or disagree, but also that which we find outrageous. I would not amend that great shield of democracy to hammer a few miscreants. The flag will still be flying proudly long after they have slunk away.” — Colin Powell, May 1999

These three measures are supposed to be the kinds of conservative, nonsensical ideas that keep the GOP together. Instead, the initiatives are a) failing; b) getting shrugged off by Democrats; and c) highlighting fissures within the Republican Party. Great job, GOP.

Steve Benen

Follow Steve on Twitter @stevebenen. Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.