Amid all the maneuvering and hand-wringing ahead of the government shutdown, one thing remained clear: House Republicans are continuing to grapple unsuccessfully with what it means to be a governing party.
Whatever happens with the crisis in the coming days will not resolve a contradiction that has bedeviled Republicans in the two decades since they swept to power in the House after 40 years in the minority. The GOP won the majority in 1994 and was returned to power in 2010 on a wave of antigovernment sentiment. In the majority, Republicans have often been stymied by the need to produce compromises while satisfying that part of their base that considers compromise as selling out principles.
House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) knows the political consequences of being blamed for shutting down the government. He was there, as a one-time key lieutenant to then-Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) the last time a confrontation with a Democratic president brought many government functions to a halt in late 1995 and early 1996.
But for the past two weeks, Boehner has been pushed and pulled by the tea party faction in his conference to pursue a high-stakes game of legislative chicken with the Senate and the White House that further jeopardized a Republican brand already near low ebb.
Almost until the deadline passed, Boehner operated with what appeared to be one overriding goal: to keep his divided conference as united as possible for as long as possible. That led him to press ahead with a series of amendments to a government-funding bill aimed at curbing the president’s Affordable Care Act, major portions of which will be implemented Tuesday.
Some of the speaker’s allies have suggested that this has been a necessary, if risky, strategy that inevitably leads to a capitulation that would result in a short-term funding bill with no significant strings attached. But even so, that might only set the stage for a second “Perils of Pauline” episode about the debt ceiling by mid-October.
It has been argued that a stronger speaker would have forced party hard-liners to accept the reality that they do not have the votes to accomplish their objectives. Boehner’s choice has been to defy a significant minority of his conference or to accommodate their demands long enough to let them conclude that they must change course. That’s what the past few days, and perhaps the next few, have been about — a weakened speaker with no good choices.
All this leads to a larger question: What does the GOP want to be and do? In Washington, Republicans feel the frustrations of divided government. In response, particularly in the House, they have resorted to symbolic action and often stalemate within their ranks.
Can Republicans find agreement even among themselves on how much to spend on various government functions? Exactly how far will they go in their call to reform federal entitlement programs? Spending issues split the party before Barack Obama became president.
Many conservatives were unhappy about the spending that occurred during George W. Bush’s presidency, and the reaction among some conservatives has shaped the attitudes of GOP House members who were first elected in 2010 and 2012.
Republicans in Washington look at the states, where they control many governorships and legislatures, and see conservative governance in action. They would like to be able to do some of the things that their governors and legislatures have been able to do.
But governors recognize the limits of governing and the importance of practicality. That’s why the message to Washington, even from many GOP heads of state, is a call to govern cooperatively to avoid a shutdown and to raise the federal debt ceiling peacefully and on time.
A number of Republican governors have warned that a shutdown would be a disaster for the country, among them New Jersey’s Chris Christie and Michigan’s Rick Snyder. Mitt Romney, the party’s presidential nominee in 2012, issued a similar warning over the weekend, saying the tactic of forcing a government shutdown was unwise.
Other GOP governors, whose offices were recently asked to comment about the battle in Washington and whether they supported the House Republican strategy, ducked the question.
On Monday, the National Governors Association weighed in with a letter to congressional leaders from both parties, signed by Chairman Mary Fallin, the Republican governor of Oklahoma, and Vice Chairman John Hickenlooper, the Democratic governor of Colorado.
Governors are seeing signs of economic recovery and are alarmed at what a shutdown or a default on the nation’s borrowing obligations would mean for their states. The letter warned that “possible consequences to state economies of a federal shutdown or not increasing the debt limit are severe.” The governors urged both sides to resolve the standoff and then deal constructively with the country’s fiscal challenges.
At this point, however, House Republicans are being driven more by some of their outside groups, which continue to exhort them to resist any call for compromise, than to many of the party’s leaders who recognize the responsibilities of governing. Those tensions in the GOP will not subside no matter what happens in this moment.