Making sense of chaos

August 15, 2013

There’s a lot out there to keep track of on what we’re hearing about the GOP government shutdown/debt limit threats right now. So here’s a roundup. Remember: a government shutdown would come without funding bills (in the form of a continuing resolution, or “CR”) passing by the end of September. Later in the fall, the debt limit will be reached and Congress will have to act to prevent a government default or other catastrophe.

So where are we right now?

* Some conservatives are really pushing the threat to shut down the government unless the Affordable Care Act is “defunded.”

* However, Republican congressional leaders have fought back effectively, and many of the rank-and-file are buying the idea that Republicans could lose their majority over it. For example, here’s another House Republican making the case that Obamacare opponents should avoid a government shutdown, and here’s Tea Party Senator Ron Johnson making the same case.

* Smart and realistic Republican leaders are still looking for an attainable “ask” in budget negotiations.

* But it’s still possible that Republicans could fail to pass a CR anyway, even without the Obamacare threat.

* Partially because of a repeating dynamic in which many conservative Members of Congress want to be seen as the “real” conservatives who would run the government if only it wasn’t for squishes and RINOs constantly selling them out.

* Which is one reason why Republican leaders are pushing for their conference to kick the can on “defunding Obamacare” from the CR to the debt limit.

* However, this is a pretty obvious bluff, just as the threats this spring were bluffs.

* And yes, it’s true that all of this brinkmanship could eventually yield a miscalculation and disaster.

* As Jonathan Chait and Steve Benen note, all of this becomes even more dangerous if John Boehner proves himself too unskilled a leader to navigate through the crisis.

* However, I think Boehner is handling his job about as well as anyone could given the situation. Most of the hard-liners’ actions are not actually as threatening as people think. After all, the hard-liners need the squishes to keep selling them out; every time it happens it validates their analysis of how the world works, and confirms that they are “real” conservatives. This suggests that the conservative demands for maximum confrontation are all for show, which means that GOP leaders will privately feel free to cut a deal with Dems that averts disaster, secure in the knowledge that conservatives won’t really oust Boehner for it.

* However, the bad news is that the above is not certain. This analysis depends on the hard-liners being reasonably rational and more or less normal ambitious politicians reacting to the incentives surrounding them. It’s a lot more problematic, however, if the hard-liners really believe the nonsense they’ve been saying and really do make credible threats to Boehner, which could make it harder for him to cut a deal.

* Still, while everyone agrees that brinkmanship risks disaster, I don’t think the risk is especially high. And I think Republicans have less leverage than they would otherwise have because of internal disagreement and dysfunction.

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Greg Sargent | August 15, 2013