With the Treasury Department scheduled to run out of room under the debt ceiling this week, House Republicans decided that a good thing to do would be to waste all of Tuesday.
That’s literally what they did.
The day began with Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell on the cusp of an agreement to increase the debt limit and reopen the government, and it ended with Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell on the cusp of an agreement to increase the debt limit and reopen the government. Fortunately, they now seem to be on track to deliver the country from this GOP-imposed crisis.
But in between, those discussions went into abeyance because John Boehner and the rest of the House Republican leadership, under ceaseless pressure from the ultraconservatives in their conference, couldn’t countenance the affront to their leadership.
In the midst of a bitter re-election fight, McConnell returned to the legislative fray, against his own political interests, to rescue House Republicans from their incompetence. When the details of his tentative deal with Reid leaked, House Republicans accused him of surrender. He arrived to pull Boehner and his leadership team off the tracks and they repaid him by throwing him under the train.
To reassert institutional legitimacy, and beat back a growing sense among conservatives that they were rolling over too quickly, Boehner et al launched an ill-timed, ill-conceived effort to increase the debt limit, reopen the government and use the proximity of the deadline to pocket minor ransoms against Obama’s wishes in the process.
Those ransoms changed over the course of the day. By the afternoon, they’d settled on one: The Vitter amendment.
Read literally, the bill they introduced implied that everything — the shutdown, the default threat, the public opinion calamity — were all ultimately in service of a punitive measure to strip members of Congress and myriad, much less affluent congressional staffers of several thousand dollars a year in health care-related compensation.
In a way it was actually more absurd than that. The bill would have provided Republicans a vote on a measure to strip members of Congress and myriad, much less affluent congressional staffers of several thousand dollars a year in health care-related compensation.
A big subplot in the shutdown fight has been the way Republicans have used it as an opportunity to force Democrats to take as many politically motivated votes as possible. They resigned themselves to prosecuting a fight they know they shouldn’t have picked, but as long as they were stuck in it they decided to take it to the mud.
Attaching the Vitter amendment to the debt-limit bill was part of the same strategy. It would have forced Democrats to make an uncomfortable choice. If they had opposed it, as they said they would, Republicans would have taken it to districts and states and lied about how Democrats voted to “exempt” themselves from Obamacare. (Read this or this or this if you want to know why it’s a lie.) By contrast, if they had voted for it, they’d have also forced President Obama to choose between defaulting on the debt and abandoning his principle that a congressional minority must not be granted unreciprocated concessions simply for increasing the debt limit. They would have pitted the economic health of the country against its foundational balance of powers.
For Republican leaders, the beauty of the ransom was the combination of its trivial scope and its political potency. It was a mixture that would have elegantly tested congressional Democrats’ commitment to Obama’s strategy and put his debt-limit principle to the test. If Republicans lost the ransom, they’d still pocket a compelling soundbite. If they won it, they’d also win an abstract fight against Obama over rightsizing the executive and legislative branches of government. They would have left this shutdown fight bruised, but armed with an expectation of future policy victories, and an incentive to provide the Treasury with ever-smaller increments of borrowing authority.
But rank-and-file Republicans killed it. They didn’t even bother trying to get the plan out of the Rules Committee.
From there, Reid and McConnell moved quickly to resume their negotiations. Their spokesmen each issued market-soothing statements expressing optimism that they’d reach agreement quickly. Republicans gave up the ghost — anonymously, but frankly — to reporters with close ties to the House GOP conference.
After his plan Z went up in flames, Boehner communicated to Reid, a top aide told me, that he’d send the Senate a “clean message” to speed things up should anyone — Ted Cruz? Mike Lee? — object to an agreement to hasten its usually lengthy legislative process. A “message” is a legislative vehicle that would allow Reid to bypass at least one time-consuming cloture motion. Alternatively, the House could pass the Reid-McConnell deal first, and send it over to the Senate, for similar purposes.
That development suggests Boehner knows the jig is up. He’s standing down, getting out of the way, working to assure GOP rebels don’t push the deal past the deadline in a fit of pique.
The truth is, there are decent reasons to think that even someone as dug in as Cruz won’t assume the risk of delaying whatever deal Reid and McConnell ink. An individual senator or group of senators that held up the plan would own the ensuing market reaction forever. It’s hard to win the presidency if you’re responsible for the Cruz Crash. It’s hard to finance a re-election campaign if the public thinks you destroyed its wealth and institutional donors know how reckless you are.
Thus, despite the time crunch, there are promising signs that Congress will avert disaster by the end of the week, and reopen the government, too. How Republicans react to such a punishing defeat, what conservatives do, and what comes next for John Boehner, will be big stories in the weeks ahead.