On Tuesday, the Senate held a vote on a "resolution to disapprove" of raising the debt limit. The resolution failed 45-54. The 45 disapprovers were all Republicans. Twenty-seven of the Republicans voting to disapprove of raising the debt limit also voted, just a few weeks ago, to raise the debt limit. Do those 27 Republican senators disapprove of their own votes because raising the debt limit turned out to be a terrible mistake with disastrous consequences? No. They voted to disapprove of their own actions because a group of loud and angry people disapprove of their actions.
The face-saving "resolution to disapprove" measure seems to derive from a a 2011 McConnell idea that would have preserved the debt limit as a grandstanding ploy without actually risking default. In McConnell's plan, the president would be allowed to increase the debt limit a little bit at a time, and Congress would then vote on whether to disapprove of the raises. It's actually pretty brilliant politics, as it would have done two things:
- Forced President Obama to raise the debt limit, which is always politically unpopular, three times in one (election) year.
- Allowed every single Republican in Congress to vote against raising the debt limit without worrying that the U.S. would actually default.
Naturally, McConnell's plan was declared rank RINOism and it went nowhere. This was in part because some conservatives believed that the plan removed the possibility of extracting massive concessions in exchange for raising the limit, but also because there simply are a lot of conservatives who oppose raising the limit at all, ever. The result of not listening to McConnell: Republicans had to vote to raise the debt limit anyway, conservatives now feel betrayed, right-wing Senate primary challenges are more likely, and non-far-right voters have more reason to be scared of allowing Republicans to govern.
Thus the meaningless symbolic vote of disapproval, in both chambers. The sorts of conservatives McConnell is hoping this stunt satisfies may be deluded enough to believe that breaching the debt ceiling wouldn't be so bad, but they are not dumb enough to be impressed with this gesture. Most important, the people and organizations they get their information and take their cues from will not suddenly start praising these 27 senators, McConnell included, as True Conservatives.
At this point, it's very easy to get on the wrong side of the activist conservative movement, and once you're labeled a RINO, there's almost nothing you can do to clear your name. John Boehner had to let the extremists take the whole country on Mr. Ted's Wild Ride for a few weeks just to keep his job, and most Tea Party types still hate him. Sen. John Cornyn is in trouble for taking his signature off a petition.
And look at the sad tale of Marco Rubio, who, not along ago, was supposed to be a major contender for the "true conservative" vote in the 2016 Republican primaries. Then Rubio, like an idiot, actually listened to people more concerned with the long-term survival of the GOP than short-term symbolic victories and attached himself to the comprehensive immigration reform project. Activist conservatives hate immigration reform nearly as much as they hate Obamacare. Now, Rubio has abandoned his bill. He's praised Cruz to the heavens and joined the vote against the deal to reopen the government, but the damage is done. Rubio has been tainted as a cooperator. In March, Rubio came in a close second to Rand Paul in the CPAC straw poll. In October, he received 5 percent -- 35 votes out of 762 -- in the Values Voters straw poll.
Symbolic gestures, like McConnell's, and outright flip-flops, like Rubio's, aren't going to quiet or stop the conservative revolt. They might at least provide some sort of model for getting through this next year without it doing too much more damage. The government will have to fund itself. The debt ceiling will need to be raised again distressingly soon. The "resolution to disapprove" could be the way Congress passes everything from now on. Pass some sort of minor budget deal, then vote on the resolution disapproving of it. Pass the farm bill, hold the vote disapproving of it. Maybe try immigration reform again with a disapproval vote attached?
None of this will fool Erick Erickson and Heritage Action and the Senate Conservatives Fund and Freedomworks, but it might just allow terrified Republicans to convince themselves that it's OK to take votes leadership wants them to take. You get to have a backsies!