Dana Milbank
Opinion writer March 30, 2011

Martin Luther nailed his theses to the Wittenberg church door. House Republican freshmen prefer blue painters’ tape.

A band of the first-term members of Congress demonstrated their legislative maturity Wednesday by announcing, in a news conference outside the Capitol, that they wished to deliver a message to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. But rather than merely send him an e-mail or hire a courier, the lawmakers instead marched up the East Front steps and presented themselves at a seldom-used ceremonial door.

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

Being a ceremonial door, it was locked and alarmed — and so the freshmen used two strips of their blue tape to affix the letter, enclosed in a large manila envelope with the words “MR. REID” handwritten in four-inch letters.

“We’re doing our job in the House of Representatives,” announced Rep. Vicky Hartzler (R-Mo.), a member of the blue-tape brigade. “We put forth a proposal that would cut $61 billion . . . and yet Senator Reid won’t even, uh, consider that. That is dereliction of duty.”

Actually, Congresswoman, the derelict Reid did bring that proposal to a vote in the Senate — and it failed, 56 to 44.

So will the frosh negotiate a compromise that could pass the Senate? No sirree. “We will not settle for a split-the-baby strategy,” proclaimed Rep. Martha Roby (R-Ala.), another member of the blue-tape caucus.

Watching the newbie lawmakers march up the Senate steps, I couldn’t help but feel sorry for House Speaker John Boehner. The Republican freshmen have put him a position where he cannot take yes for an answer.

His leadership team had originally proposed cuts of $32 billion in the current year’s budget — cuts that Reid called “draconian” and “unworkable.” Now, in their private negotiations, Democrats are offering Boehner more than $30 billion in cuts. But he can’t accept the offer because his freshman Republicans, who forced GOP leaders to increase the cuts in their bill to $61 billion, won’t let him “split the baby.”

As my colleague Paul Kane reported, House Republican leaders have begun to reach out to moderate Democrats in hopes of working out a deal so that they don’t need the votes of the blue-tape caucus. Understandably, Boehner is under a great deal of stress.

“Pass the damn thing, awright?” he shouted into the microphones after he left a meeting of the House Republican caucus Wednesday morning in the Capitol basement.

Boehner was directing his demand at Reid — part of an effort to position Senate Democrats to take the blame for a possible government shutdown. But Reid offered Boehner phony sympathy on the Senate floor. “It’s obvious that he has a difficult situation on his hands,” Reid said. “I don’t envy him.”

Reid can afford to be serene. The March Washington Post-ABC News poll finds the public would blame Republicans over President Obama for a shutdown, 45 percent to 31 percent. Just a couple of weeks earlier, they were even.

To overcome this, House Republican leaders announced a novel solution: They would suspend the Constitution to have the House enact a law without the agreement of the Senate. They will pursue this exotic maneuver on Friday — April Fool’s Day.

Majority Leader Eric Cantor, announcing this “Prevention of Government Shutdown Act,” told reporters that if the Senate “does not act, H.R. 1” — that’s the $61 billion of cuts favored by Republican freshmen — “becomes the law of the land.” Just like that!

After several questions about this proposal, Cantor admitted that for his scheme to work, the Senate would first have to agree to surrender its constitutional authority.

This seems unlikely — but perhaps no less likely than persuading the blue-tape caucus to change its views. There were 10 freshmen on hand for Wednesday’s spectacle on the Senate steps, but there are many more lawmakers determined to resist compromise. At a rally scheduled for Thursday by the Tea Party Patriots, the list of speakers includes GOP Reps. Mike Pence (Ind.), Michele Bachmann (Minn.), Louie Gohmert (Tex.), Steve King (Iowa) and Jim Jordan (Ohio).

The “Continuing Revolution Rally” will deliver a message similar to that offered Wednesday by Rep. Rick Crawford (R-Ark.), organizer of the march up the Senate steps. “The Senate’s failure to act results in zero action over in the Senate,” Crawford alleged, tautologically, as he pointed to a poster showing a big zero.

A questioner asked whether it might make more sense to compromise with Democrats on this and move on to other matters that have more consequence for the federal debt.

“No,” Crawford answered.

If there’s any blue tape left, Boehner might want to put some over the mouths of his freshmen.

danamilbank@washpost.com