September 20, 2013

There is a four-cornered stand-off shaping up in the debt ceiling/continuing resolution/Obamacare battle. When the media and Democrats (I repeat myself) say “Republicans want X” or “Republicans will never do Y” they are either intentionally or unintentionally blurring the real divisions.

Jim DeMint
Jim DeMint, president of the Heritage Foundation. (Evan Vucci/Associated Press)

In one corner is President Obama, who wants no interruption to Obamacare funding or its implementation (other than the parts he has delayed). As in 2011, the White House certainly doesn’t want to hit the debt ceiling; however I suspect a government shutdown for which they could blame the Republicans might be just fine with an administration entirely out of gas. The president has let on he is, if not desperate, then very desirous, of lifting the sequestration.

In a second corner is the House leadership, which insists on keeping the sequestration and would be delighted to have some delay or suspension of Obamacare, or at least of the individual mandate. If not an Obamacare suspension there is a menu of items they’d be pleased to get  (e.g. a domestic energy bill, entitlement or tax reform). A tax hike, following the raise in the top rate in the context of the fiscal cliff, is a nonstarter. House leaders don’t want either a debt ceiling debacle or a government shutdown; they know all too well the president would go to town on their alleged “intransigence.”

Then there are the House and Senate Republican nihilists. They are uninterested in preventing a government shutdown and don’t seem perturbed about hitting the debt ceiling. They demand Obamacare be defunded and the sequester cuts remain in place. But most of all they want to oppose any compromise, characterize their fellow Republicans as wimps and leverage the ensuing resentment of the base to their own benefit. They are aided by an army of players (e.g. Heritage Action, Club for Growth, and radio talk show hosts) who have no responsibility for a shutdown, a government default or much of anything else and whose financial and political success is improved by GOP failure (defined as a compromise to keep the government from default and closure).

And finally, there are Senate Democrats from red states, many up for election, who would prefer to hide under their desks, cast no difficult votes and not be forced to pick between the White House’s desires and those of their more conservative constituents. They’d be happy if the nihilists won the day, thereby proving that voters would be foolish to allow Republicans to gain a majority in the Senate. Ideally, they’d like the status quo (Obamacare is funded, the government stays open, the debt ceiling is raised).

This week the White House was helped by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) who, in a hastily arranged press conference following an errant statement let, it be known he really didn’t have support for what he was up to, but nevertheless could well filibuster any attempt to keep the government open with Obamacare funding. Moreover, in an unintentionally revealing interview with National Review Online Cruz confirmed that he’s content to leave the House holding the bag. (“House Republicans will pass their defund-CR bill on Friday, and it will head to a quick death in the Senate. Cruz may shrug off his detractors, but as the deadline for government funding nears, he has become a top target — not just for Democrats, but also for Republicans who want to pin the mess on him.”) If things go astray the White House has a Cruz confession of ambition and legislative folly at which to point.

But by the same token the nihilists’ appearances strengthened the hand of House leaders. They can tell their members that following Cruz et al is folly, a political death sentence and irresponsible. He confessed to NRO, “I can’t win this fight, and Mike Lee can’t win this fight”; so how then is the House supposed to win it?

House leaders will be most likely to win something of merit by holding firm to reasoned positions and forcing Senate Dems to take hard votes. In the end, however, by using the White House’s insistence on Obamacare funding and on lifting the sequester the GOP may achieve something voters actually want, such as a pro-jobs energy bill or revenue neutral tax reform. In this they may find common ground with Senate Democrats.

The lesson for the week is that the more the nihilists talk and show their hand, the less traction they may get. A filibuster by Cruz? Why not? He can talk until the cows come home, but when the rants stop, the responsible leaders can get down to some deal-making, which is unlikely to be “grand” but may actually be helpful to conservatives and the country around the margins.

Jennifer Rubin writes the Right Turn blog for The Post, offering reported opinion from a conservative perspective.