In the past, this would be the moment for late-night favors and veiled threats, for whispered messages from the party leaders: “I need you on this.” This would be the point at which the congressional bosses would have agreed to a concocted deal and then wrangle the votes for it with strong-arm tactics as old as the Capitol’s marble.
Not this time.
The current debt-ceiling debate is occurring after a string of bitter elections has left Congress with few of the old characteristics that once made compromise possible: There are fewer moderate legislators. There is little trust and less fear of party leaders. And there is almost no appetite left for public favor-trading.
On Monday, it had come to this: House GOP leaders proposed their solution to the crisis and found they couldn’t even make a deal within their own caucus. “It’s time to get serious about solving America’s problems, and I believe our plan is a good step in the right direction,” House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) said of his plan.
“I gotta sleep on all this,” said freshman Rep. Scott DesJarlais (R-Tenn.), after hearing Boehner’s pitch.
“We’ve got to see the details,” said Rep. Tim Scott (R-S.C.), another freshman. “We’ll see how the rest of us vote.”
Monday’s events signaled how far off-script this showdown has veered from the Hill’s accustomed ways. In both parties, leaders say they want an agreement to avert a national default. Both know they have just a week to work one out.
But on Monday, the two sides appeared to go backwards, despite their best intentions.
Democrats proposed a plan to raise the debt ceiling by $2.7 trillion and cut an equal amount from the federal budget. Republicans rejected that one, and proposed their own: it would raise the debt ceiling by $1 trillion and impose $1.2 trillion in cuts. It would also include long-term caps on federal spending, and require a congressional committee to seek even more budget cuts in the coming months.
Democrats rejected it as too conservative.
Many in the Republican ranks dismissed it as not conservative enough.
“Washington wants a deal,” said Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), who chairs a group of dozens of conservative legislators called the Republican Study Committee. He, like other conservatives, came out against the Boehner solution
This is a curious distinction on Capitol Hill where the deal has always been the solution.
Congress has rarely done anything memorable without a compromise, and the Capitol is full of monuments to the men who made them: Sen. Henry Clay in the 1800s, Senate Majority Leader Lyndon B. Johnson and Sen. Everett Dirksen in the 1950s and House Speaker Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill in the 1970s and ‘80s.
Often, their deals were made with quiet persuasion — seeking out members on the fence, and finding what it would take to knock them off.
“It may be somebody wants to take a trip to Rome to meet the pope. It may be somebody wants a political favor from the president. Maybe somebody wants to go on a trip to the Middle East,” said former representative Lee Hamilton (D-Ind.), who served in Congress from 1965 to 1999. He now heads the Center on Congress at Indiana University. “There’s all kinds of favors that can be handed out.”
This process was made easier by the presence of moderates open to voting with the other party on a big issue. And it helped when party leaders could call in personal favors: former congressman Dennis Hertel (D-Mich.) remembered O’Neill telling him privately, “I need you on this, I really need you on this.”
These tactics worked, even if they were not the most effective way to run a government.
In 1987, House Speaker Jim Wright (D-Tex.) refused to end a vote until he had won it, persuading a Democrat to switch sides. In 2003, Republicans extended “15-minute vote” to two hours, and 50 minutes, while Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) rounded up votes. A House ethics committee later found that DeLay had told one legislator that he would help the man’s son be elected to Congress in exchange for a “yes.”
And with the landmark health-care bill pending in late 2009, several key senators wound up with special favors written into the bill. Now, even winning ugly seems impossible.
The House is the best example of the changes in Congress. The last few elections, whip-sawing between Democratic and Republican majorities, have eliminated many of the moderates in both parties. The special favors for the home districts known as “earmarks” have been banned in the GOP-controlled House.
And many of the 87 new GOP freshmen were propelled to office by the tea party movement, which distrusts and disdains the establishment in both parties.
“Neither side has a middle . . . And I think that’s the main problem. That’s why this is unlike anything else,” said Charles Stewart III, a professor of political science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He said that Boehner is charged with leading a caucus that is primed not to follow him: “I don’t see how this deal is going to happen.”
Some GOP legislators have expressed support of Boehner, but there is a deep skepticism about his as well.
“I really like him, and I respect the way he’s negotiated,” said freshman Rep. Joe Walsh (R-Ill.) after Boehner made his pitch to GOP House members. But Walsh won’t support it: he wants a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution. “At this moment in time, we can do a lot better,” Walsh said.
At a news conference Monday afternoon, a reporter asked Boehner: “Do you think you can get a majority of Republicans to vote for [his proposal] in the House?”
Boehner didn’t answer. Instead, he turned aside without a word, and a subordinate, House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) came to the microphone. “I thank the speaker for yielding,” McCarthy said, as GOP leaders laughed.