GOP's Iran-shutdown debacle: What happens when the governing party is constantly fighting itself

The GOP's shambolic response to the Iran deal does not bode well for the upcoming government funding fight

Published September 11, 2015 12:00PM (EDT)

House Speaker John Boehner (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)     (AP)
House Speaker John Boehner (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite) (AP)

The defining feature of the 114th Congress has been the consistent success Republicans have had in finding issues they unanimously agree on and then turning them into bitter, self-defeating intra-party flame wars for no actual reason. They are frighteningly good at doing this, and with the Iran nuclear agreement’s 60-day congressional review period coming to a close, they’re once again fighting among themselves on an issue that does not divide them.

Every Republican in Congress disapproves of the multilateral nuclear agreement with Iran. Given the unanimity of the opposition, you’d think that the passage of a resolution expressing that disapproval wouldn’t be an especially difficult lift, particularly in the House, where Republicans have a large majority and don’t have to overcome procedural hurdles thrown up by the Democrats. Also, given the fact that Democrats are indeed filibustering the Senate’s disapproval resolution and President Obama’s veto pen hangs over everything, we’re talking about a purely symbolic action.

And yet, when John Boehner and the House GOP leadership moved to pass its resolution disapproving of the Iran deal, they faced a rebellion from conservatives in the party who had some wacky ideas for how Congress could stop the agreement from going forward. And Boehner, as has become commonplace, folded like a lawn chair:

After a day of disarray in which Speaker John Boehner was again forced into a corner, Republicans settled on a three-pronged strategy. One vote would rebuke Obama for not disclosing the totality of the agreement to Congress; a second would try to prevent him from lifting sanctions on Iran.

Then, in a reversal, a third vote would be on a resolution of approval on the pact, designed to highlight majority opposition to the nuclear agreement. The problem with that element is that House Republicans will now be at odds with Senate Republicans, who plan to vote instead on a disapproval resolution.

So instead of standing together as a united party to state what they all believe – the Iran deal is bad – the House GOP instead stitched together this multilayered response to the agreement that puts it at odds with their colleagues on the other side of the Capitol. And none of it matters anyway, since no legislation obstructing the deal stands a realistic chance of getting through the Senate. As Greg Sargent put it yesterday, House Republicans managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of defeat.

It’s easy to laugh this off given that, in this instance, the GOP’s toxic internal struggles won’t have any impact on government policy. But we’re very quickly approaching a point at which the Republicans in Congress will have to actually govern, and this strong tendency toward shambolic disarray does not bode well for a positive outcome.

Funding for the government is set to expire at the end of the month unless Congress can come together and authorize new appropriations. The successful completion of this relatively basic function of government is complicated by conservatives in the House and Senate who are demanding that funding for the government be linked to the defunding of Planned Parenthood. A series of undercover videos purporting to show the women’s health provider “trafficking” in fetal tissues galvanized the conservative movement, and some of its most influential figures are demanding that Republicans in Congress do everything in their power to deny federal funding to Planned Parenthood, to include shutting down the government.

John Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell do not support Planned Parenthood and are opponents of abortion rights. But they also don’t want a government shutdown and have said as much. They know the politics of a shutdown are bad for Republicans and would imperil their chances at taking the White House and holding the Senate in 2016. They also know that any attempt to link Planned Parenthood funding to government appropriations will be filibustered by Democrats and/or vetoed by Obama. The question going forward is how they will navigate this mess.

If history is any guide, the answer is: not well. Boehner and McConnell have already proven themselves susceptible to pressure from the far right flank of the party when it comes to fights like these. This session of Congress started with a hopeless battle over immigration that nearly resulted in the Department of Homeland Security being shut down because the Republican leadership was unwilling to admit defeat.

Boehner is already feeling pressure from the hard-line conservative House Freedom Caucus, which just announced that it will “oppose any spending measure that contains funding for Planned Parenthood.” As Roll Call’s Matt Fuller notes, they made this announcement after seeing how easily Boehner was pushed around on the Iran deal:

Emboldened after members pressured House GOP leadership into changing course on the Iran nuclear deal, the HFC is staking out a clear position on Planned Parenthood and the CR. The group is practically daring Speaker John A. Boehner and other GOP leaders to try putting forth a stopgap spending measure that funds Planned Parenthood.

So once again we find Republicans on the precipice of destructive internecine struggle over an issue that they don’t actually disagree on: They all oppose Planned Parenthood and they all want to see it defunded. But the party is such a fractious disaster that, instead of working toward their common goal, they’re busily sabotaging each other and creating a political mess for themselves that could well tip us into yet another pointless and costly breakdown of the basic functions of government.

By Simon Maloy

MORE FROM Simon Maloy