The humiliated, bizarre Republican Party: What happens next

Yep, they really shut the government down. How does this mess end -- and will a debt limit showdown be even worse?

Published October 1, 2013 11:45AM (EDT)

John Boehner, Ted Cruz                                                                             (AP/J. Scott Applewhite/Jeff Malet,
John Boehner, Ted Cruz (AP/J. Scott Applewhite/Jeff Malet,

Back when the conservative campaign to defund Obamacare by threatening a government shutdown began a few months ago, almost nobody believed Republican leaders would be so cowed by it that they'd follow suit. Particularly given how aware they were of the dire political consequences for the GOP.

And yet that's what happened. The demand has dwindled -- Republicans are now insisting on a one-year delay in the healthcare law's individual mandate, and a prohibition on members, congressional aides and other government officials getting any kind of healthcare-related compensation from their employers. But midnight came and went this morning, and House Speaker John Boehner never did the blindly obvious thing. He refused to place bipartisan Senate legislation to extend funding for the government on the floor of the House -- legislation that would probably pass overwhelmingly right now if he'd just agree to give it a vote. He's sticking to a new and odd principle that Democrats must yield some Obamacare-related concession to the GOP if they want the government funded. And so it's shutdown.

"[A]gencies should now execute plans for an orderly shutdown due to the absence of appropriations," read a memo from OMB director Sylvia Burwell. "We urge Congress to act quickly to pass a Continuing Resolution to provide a short-term bridge that ensures sufficient time to pass a budget for the remainder of the fiscal year, and to restore the operation of critical public services and programs that will be impacted by a lapse in appropriations."

So what happens now?

The first question is, how long will the shutdown last? Is Boehner doing this to prove a point to his conservative members or is he truly unwilling to fund the government unless Democrats give him some kind of fig leaf or trophy? Several Republicans have already given up the game. The final tug of war between the House and Senate last night was embarrassing for them. They know they're going to lose, and many of them are prepared to vote for a clean funding bill today. Even high-profile conservatives have publicly questioned Boehner's decision.

But the night ended on a bizarre note, with House Republicans demanding formal bicameral negotiations over a six-week stopgap funding bill (as if the lengthy process of regular order were an appropriate way to fund government agencies set to shut down within an hour) after having refused formal negotiations with the Senate over a real budget for six months. Just how Boehner backs out of that one, or squares the demand with Republicans' extremely public intransigence on the budget this year, is an open question.

Either way it can't last too long. Now that furloughs have begun and services are interrupted, the cry from the public to end the shutdown should escalate quickly over the course of the next week or so. And if Republicans don't yield to that pressure, they'll soon find themselves staring into an abyss. The debt limit will need to be increased just days later. And though the shutdown will probably reduce the pace of government expenditures enough to buy Congress a very small amount of time, the Treasury will come calling sooner than later. It would constitute another act of bizarreness for Boehner to call Congress back to raise the debt limit and then return to the regularly scheduled shutdown, already in progress.

Which brings us to another vital issue.

Over the past several weeks, an unintuitive but reasonable argument has become a new conventional wisdom in Washington: that a government shutdown is actually, perversely, in the country's best interest. Republicans have overcommitted themselves to their voting base, and even to some of their rank and file members. They've promised to use the congressional budget process to extract huge concessions from President Obama, over Obama's repeated insistence that he will not be extorted. Better, then, that Republicans come to terms with their powerlessness now, when the consequence is a government shutdown, instead of later when it's a much more dangerous debt limit breach. Once they do, they'll deescalate, and the threat of a debt default will recede.

I've never really bought that argument. Not because I think it's "wrong" per se -- I think there's some logic to it, and I hope it's right! But because I think it unnecessarily complicates things.

Specifically, it requires ignoring two immutable facts: first, that the votes exist in both the House and Senate to both fund the government and increase the debt limit without Obama yielding any concessions to the GOP; and second that for all his reluctance to cross the right, Boehner still controls the floor of the House of Representatives.

At the end of the day that means the questions of whether government shuts down (which it has) and whether the country's borrowing authority lapses are separate ones, that only Boehner can answer. It's all up to him. At least in this Congress.

And that's where the differences between a government shutdown and a debt default become so crucial. When it comes to most issues, including a government shutdown, it makes some sense to think of Boehner as a helpless figurehead at the mercy of whichever bloc of Republicans happens to be threatening his speakership at the moment.

But when it comes to the debt limit, you have to remember that for all his shortcomings, Boehner is a powerful person with agency and a conscience. Human qualities tend to be poor indicators of legislative comings and goings, but in the coming debt limit fight it's practically the only thing that matters.

Boehner's conscience isn't bothered by rattling the country, or by undermining economic confidence, or even by shutting down the government -- something he just got boxed into doing by a minority of his own members knowing how bad it would be for the nation and for his party. That's why I don't expect him to increase the debt limit in an orderly or timely manner.

But actually flushing the full faith and credit of the United States down the toilet is a completely different thing. To assume that Boehner's more or less on the hook for blowing through the debt limit based on how the government shutdown fight (or any fight) plays out is to make a categorical error. Or perhaps to believe that Boehner's essentially outsourced his moral decision making to the 30-or-so Republicans who are threatening his speakership.

Nothing we've seen bears out that notion. If anything, he and other GOP leaders have made very clear over the past two years that they ultimately won't allow the country to default on its debt. No matter what. Even if their political hides are on the line.

Which is all to say I don't think it matters if the shutdown we're experiencing now gets resolved in a day or a week or two weeks, and I don't think it would've mattered if Boehner had waved the white flag at midnight and put the Senate's spending bill on the House floor. If this shutdown makes it easier for him to increase the debt limit later this month, great! But just about everything that's happened all year -- including the way he winnowed down GOP demands in the shutdown fight just last night -- suggests to me he would have done it anyhow.

The outcome of last night's proceedings on Capitol Hill shouldn't shake or bolster your faith that everything will work out OK. Whatever you once believed about the likelihood that Republicans would trigger a major credit event, nothing that happened yesterday should change it. Before last night I believed the threat of a noisy and destructive debt limit fight was very high, but that the threat of a genuine lapse in borrowing authority was pretty low. I still believe both of those things.

By Brian Beutler

Brian Beutler is Salon's political writer. Email him at and follow him on Twitter at @brianbeutler.

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