October 15, 2013

TUESDAY BEGAN amid optimism that Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) could at last broker a budget deal to end the partial but increasingly painful government shutdown and enable federal borrowing to continue past a Thursday deadline. This was not exactly a high hope. At best, the deal under discussion would have extended the government’s spending and borrowing authority into the early weeks of 2014, averting a market-rattling default and allowing time for Capitol Hill negotiators to reach a more substantial budgetary deal.

Yet even this paltry prospect was thrown into doubt when House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) and his fellow GOP leaders emerged Tuesday morning to inform the world that they would be offering legislation of their own. The precise content of that legislation changed during the course of the day, as Mr. Boehner conducted what has by now become the usual inconclusive whip count of the far-right members of his caucus. Necessarily, the Senate leaders shut down negotiations while awaiting the House’s action. Then efforts to organize a vote collapsed late in the day anyway, amid yet another rebellion by Mr. Boehner’s unappeasable ultras.

Precious time has been squandered — and for what? Mr. Boehner’s reasons for staging this last-minute maneuver are the subject of much speculation. Did the speaker need to give his ever-restless caucus one more chance to vote against Obama­care, or at least against some minor aspect of it? Was he trying to show the Senate that he and the House are not so easily “jammed?”

Certainly the bill’s policy merits were difficult to discern. One reported provision would irresponsibly deny the Treasury the right to take “extraordinary measures” to shuffle federal funds, and pay bills, for a few weeks beyond the next debt-ceiling deadline — an element of flexibility that has been included in all previous debt-ceiling legislation for more than a quarter-century.

Also, the House GOP would ensure “fairness under Obamacare” by requiring all top executive-branch officials, members of Congress and congressional staff to purchase insurance on health-care exchanges without any federal assistance. This supposed equal treatment actually places hard-working staff, many of whom earn modest pay, at a lower status than all other Americans. That’s because all other Americans will be required to go to the exchanges only if they are not otherwise insured, and they will remain eligible for federal subsidies if they meet certain income requirements. Yet even the basic needs of its own staff must yield to the GOP right’s zeal to score points against Obamacare, apparently.

Things have really gone topsy-turvy in Washington when such a punitive measure can be proposed in the name of “fairness.” But the House GOP seems determined to thrash about in search of something it can call a political win for a few more hours, or days. Alas, the country is just about out of time.