Braveheart Republicans? Or false-hearted?


House Republicans liken themselves to 13th-century Scottish rebel William Wallace and his troops. (REUTERS)
Dana Milbank
Opinion writer December 20, 2011

House Republicans, on the eve of Tuesday’s vote denying tax relief to 160 million Americans, huddled in a conference room in the Capitol basement for more than two hours.

Were they puzzling over how to explain to constituents why they were effectively ordering a tax increase on the middle class after fighting for much larger tax breaks for the wealthy? Were they justifying the killing of a bipartisan compromise that had the support of all but eight Senate Republicans and the tacit approval of House Speaker John Boehner?

Dana Milbank writes about political theater in the nation’s capital. He joined the Post as a political reporter in 2000. View Archive

Nope. Turns out they were talking Monday night about their favorite scenes from “Braveheart.” About 10 House Republicans went to the microphones to share their memories of the Mel Gibson film, Republican sources told my Post colleagues Paul Kane and Rosalind Helderman.

One member spoke about the apocryphal scene in which the 13th-century Scottish rebel William Wallace ordered his troops to moon the English. Another member recounted the scene in which Wallace commanded the rebels to hold their positions before raising their spears against the charging English cavalry.

This inspired the assembled lawmakers to chant: “Hold! Hold! Hold! Hold!”

Finally, toward the end of the meeting, Rep. Rob Bishop (Utah) bravely rose to tell his colleagues that he hated the film. He introduced a motion that all references to “Braveheart” be banned. His colleagues laughed and heckled. The motion was not adopted.

But Bishop was right: “Braveheart” is a conspicuously poor choice for the House GOP.

For one thing, the Republicans are, if anything, in a reverse-“Braveheart” position: In this fight, they are the nobles putting down the overtaxed peasants. For another, the Scots they are emulating were defeated and slaughtered, and Wallace was captured (possibly betrayed by his own side), then drawn and quartered.

That the House Republicans would embrace a doomed cause and its martyred leader gets at their main problem in the majority: They’d rather make a point than govern the country. And in this case, it’s not entirely clear what point they’re trying to make.

Is it making sure the tax cut is paid for? For the last decade, Republicans approved billions of dollars in tax cuts, mostly for the rich, without paying for them.

Is it because they want the tax-cut extension to be for a year rather than just two months, as the Senate approved? Then why did so many Republicans originally criticize any tax-cut extension?

In killing the Senate compromise, which passed 89 to 10, with 39 Republican votes, the House GOP resorted to a variant of the “deem and pass” resolution they derided when Democrats proposed it during the health-care fight. Reneging on their pledge to hold a vote on the Senate compromise, Braveheart Republican leaders ordered up a resolution that rejected the Senate measure without a direct vote.

Caucus chairman Jeb Hensarling (Tex.), demanding a conference between the House and Senate to resolve differences, instructed his colleagues to “go and watch ‘Schoolhouse Rock’ ” to see how “things are settled between the House and Senate.” But this ignored the fact that Senate Democrats had already compromised with Senate Republicans; Hensarling was asking them to compromise on their compromise.

House Democrats didn’t exactly distinguish themselves, either. Rep. Jim McGovern (Mass.) said Republicans had imposed “martial law.” Rep. Jim McDermott (Wash.) brought a Christmas stocking and lump of coal to the floor. Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) recalled a Woody Allen joke (“the food at this place is really terrible . . . and such small portions”) that she attributed to Yogi Berra.

But that didn’t hold a torch to the Republicans’ “Braveheart” performance. It wasn’t the first congressional invocation of the film (Dick Gephardt once showed up to a meeting in William Wallace attire when he was House Democratic leader), but until now it hasn’t been embraced quite so earnestly.

“Look, this is a ‘Braveheart’ moment,” Rep. Phil Gingrey (R-Ga.) said on Fox News on Monday, describing the House Republicans’ instructions to Boehner. “You, Mr. Speaker, are our William Wallace. Let’s rush to the fight.”

Apparently plenty of others felt the same way. Staffers emerged from the GOP caucus meeting at 6:45 p.m. Monday to say the meeting would break up in five minutes. But the Republicans’ impromptu movie night didn’t end until 8:17 p.m., when Boehner, face as orange as Mel Gibson’s was blue, marched forth with his Bravehearts in a cloud of cigarette smoke toward their inevitable tragedy.

danamilbank@washpost.com

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