Rip off the Band-Aid, John Boehner

September 17, 2013

Jonathan Strong, who is well connected among Republicans, has published a remarkable account of House GOP machinations over the coming government shutdown confrontation.

The most telling tidbit: John Boehner and GOP leaders and their aides took active steps to avoid taking a public position on the defund-Obamacare movement, apparently for fear of antagonizing the base. This, Strong reports, is turning out to have been a serious mistake, with potentially grave consequences:

[A]s they tried to gingerly tamp down enthusiasm at the end of July before lawmakers left for the August recess, they refused to take a public position on the matter, repeatedly telling members and the press that “no decisions have been made.” Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell, currently facing a primary challenger, also did not take a position, and still hasn’t.

Aides to both Boehner and McConnell actually intervened to ensure that comments both of their bosses made did not actually amount to taking a position. In the resulting vacuum, the push to defund Obamacare continued to gain momentum. And when Cantor finally revealed the House leadership’s plan last week, it was too late — the seeds of dissent had already been planted.

Simply amazing. As some of us on the left have been arguing for awhile now, the refusal of GOP leaders to level with the base, and admit that this fall’s confrontations don’t give Republicans leverage to block Obaamcare, has only made things worse by feeding the sense that a defund-Obamacare stand is possible, thus allowing defund mania to gain ground among conservatives. It’s good to have this confirmed by a reporter who’s well sourced among Republicans.

That aside, this has major ramifications for what’s coming this fall. Strong further reports that at this point, Republicans simply have no idea how they are going to bridge the “distrust between leadership and the right flank,” which “has been steadily growing over time.”

At this point, it seems clear that House Republicans will, at some point this fall, have to pass something with the help of a lot of Dems. Right now it’s unclear whether House Republicans have the votes to pass a short term measure funding the government, even with their gimmicky defund-Obamacare rider (which would be defeated in the Senate) attached. So they may need Dem help to pass a “clean” continuing resolution at current sequester levels. Today Dem leader Steny Hoyer announced he won’t vote for any clean CR at that level, which suggests Dems may take a hard line and deny Republicans votes, making that harder.

But even if Republicans can somehow pass the CR on their own, the debt limit fight looms next. Conservatives will be an even less compromising mood at that point, meaning it will be even harder for GOP leaders to raise it — so they may need a lot of Dems at that point, if they are going to avoid unleashing economic havoc.

Dems are hoping the pressure on Boehner at that juncture will be so intense that he will want to make a longer term deal to replace the sequester at higher spending levels, one that includes the closing of a few tax loopholes and would pass with Dems. Conservatives such as Philip Klein claim this idea is delusional — that Republicans will never agree to new revenues. That may be, but doesn’t that mean the alternative would be that Republicans may have to pass one temporary CR and debt limit hike after another — each time presumably going through the same chaos we’re seeing now — rather than do this just once in a bigger deal?

Yes, if a longer term deal were reached, the right would scream with fury at any agreement to give up any new revenues. And perhaps there is no chance GOP leaders will do this. But it’s unclear right now why the alternative — endless crises and tumult — is preferable to ripping off the Band Aid in one shot.

Of course, the fact that Republican leaders don’t appear to agree that ripping off the Band Aid is the least bad outcome is what’s important, and doesn’t bode well for the prospects of functional government in the near future.

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UPDATE: Brian Beutler had a good piece the other day gaming all this out, and calling on Boehner to — get this — lead.

Greg Sargent writes The Plum Line blog, a reported opinion blog with a liberal slant -- what you might call “opinionated reporting” from the left.
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Greg Sargent | September 17, 2013