October 13, 2013

With House Republicans devolving into utter chaos, the prospects for any kind of deal to end the crisis has shifted over to the Senate, where Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell continue to negotiate over the terms of ending the government shutdown and lifting the debt ceiling. Senators had coalesced around a plan pushed by Susan Collins that would increase the debt limit into January and fund the government for six months, albeit at sequester levels, while delaying the medical device tax for two years.

Reid is insisting new revenues, and a higher spending level, must be part of these talks. After all, this Collins “compromise” contains zero concessions by Republicans, and only concessions by Dems. The Collins plan continues to define lifting the debt limit and funding the government at sequester levels as concessions by Republicans, but those are both outcomes Republicans want. John Boehner flatly admitted in March the debt limit must and will be raised to preserve the full faith and credit of the U.S. And funding the government at sequester levels for six months is a concession by Democrats to what Republicans themselves have described as a victory for them.

What’s really telling, though, is that House Republicans are furious at this emerging plan, explicitly because they think it requires them to give up the debt ceiling as leverage to force major Dem concessions on Obamacare. Buried in the Post’s account is this important anecdote describing Paul Ryan’s reaction to the Collins plan:

[S]ome rank-and-file Republicans grew visibly excited about the prospect of opposing such a deal, said one person in the room. This defiance was fed by Ryan, who stood up and railed against the Collins proposal, saying the House could not accept either a debt-limit bill or a government-funding measure that would delay the next fight until the new year.

According to two Republicans familiar with the exchange, Ryan argued that the House would need those deadlines as “leverage” for delaying the health-care law’s individual mandate and adding a “conscience clause” — allowing employers and insurers to opt out of birth-control coverage if they find it objectionable on moral or religious grounds — and mentioned tax and entitlement goals Ryan had focused on in a recent op-ed in the Wall Street Journal.

Ryan’s speech appeared only to further rile up the conservative wing of the GOP conference, which has been agitating the shutdown strategy to try to tear apart the health-care law.

If this is accurate, then the widespread portrayal of Ryan as offering a reasonable way out of this mess (remember, his WSJ Op ed piece seemed to back away from demanding concessions on Obamacare)  is utter B.S. There are two things that are flatly unacceptable to Democrats under any circumstances. The first is the prospect of Republicans using the threat of widespread harm to the country — whether through a government shutdown or through default and economic havoc – as leverage to extract unrelated policy concessions. The Dem view is that not only will this force Dems to make unilateral concessions; it will also legitimize use of the default threat as a conventional negotiating tactic, only ensuring this will happen again, making default more likely later, particularly in 2014, when House Republicans face reelection and primary challenges.  The second thing that is non-negotiable for Dems is anything that fundamentally undermines Obamacare.

Ryan is insisting on preserving both of those. Any Senate compromise is a nonstarter if it doesn’t allow Republicans to preserve the threat of a government shutdown later, and even default, as leverage to delay the individual mandate for a year, a move designed to make Obamacare fail. This implacability leads the Post to conclude:

With such fervor still rampant among House Republicans, there was bipartisan agreement in the Senate that Boehner’s House had lost its ability to approve anything that could be signed by Obama into law.

But, look, this basic dynamic has been plainly obvious for weeks: There is no compromise that would prove acceptable to both Tea Party Republicans on one side and Obama and Senate Democrats on the other. The entire Tea Party crusade has been premised on the idea that the Dem refusal to unwind Obamacare could be broken if Republicans held firm on the government shutdown long enough, because it was only a matter of time until the American people, under duress and gripped with a feverish hatred of the health care law, rise up and force Dems to capitulate. Neither of those has happened. The American people have reached the opposite conclusion — they blame Republicans for the government shutdown, and don’t want such tactics wielded as a weapon against Obamacare — and Obama and Dems have demonstrated they will not capitulate.

Tea Party Republicans faced with these twin realities are not giving ground, either. As Ron Brownstein details, they can’t, because in their view, this has become nothing less than an apocalyptic demographic and ideological struggle to prevent a national alliance of “takers” and their Democratic enablers from transforming the country into something no longer recognizably American. “Obama’s health care looms to them as the tipping point towards a permanent Democratic advantage built on dependency and demographic change,” Brownstein observes.

It now seems plainly obvious that neither Tea Party Republicans on one side, nor Obama and Senate Dems on the other, will give any ground on what they view as non-negotiable. No deal that is even marginally acceptable to both of those groups is feasible. Democrats are not capitulating to Tea Party demands; it just isn’t happening. By definition, then, there is only one way out of the crisis: Through an alliance of non-Tea Party Republicans (who have already shown a willingness to reopen the government) and Democrats. This would require House GOP leaders to allow a vote on something that is unacceptable to Tea Party conservatives, which will make them really, really angry, and to suffer the consequences.

Yet as the above anecdote indicates, even “responsible” leaders such as Paul Ryan continue to refuse to acknowledge this increasingly obvious reality, and refuse to level with the rank and file about it, no matter the consequences for the country.

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