In an interesting paradox, the most ostentatious display of Tea Party intransigence in quite some time is persuading Democrats not to (completely) give up on the prospects for cooperation from Republicans.
As I’ve been noting here, the Tea Party trio of Ted Cruz, Rand Paul and Mike Lee have produced a backlash from John McCain and other GOP Senate colleagues with their refusal to allow budget negotiations to progress unless Dems commit in advance not to push for a debt limit hike as part of the talks. Jonathan Chait explains the dynamic driving the GOP divide:
If the House and Senate had to reconcile their budgets, that would lead to a negotiation and a compromise somewhere in the middle — which is what Obama has been desperately trying to get and which conservative Republicans have been equally desperately trying to prevent. The conservative position is that, rather than negotiate, they want to use the threat of refusing to lift the debt ceiling to extract unilateral concessions from Obama.
That’s the context for McCain’s latest spat with his party’s right wing. Lee, Paul, and other right-wingers want to prevent any budget agreement by requiring that budget talks not lift the debt ceiling. This, of course, would sabotage the negotiations before they begin — Democrats would realize they couldn’t strike any deal because Republicans would come back in the fall demanding more concessions in return for not blowing up the world economy.
And so McCain’s disagreement over what appears to be a technical point of Senate process is actually a fundamental split over the party’s approach toward Obama. The conservatives want to continue their stance of total opposition and instigating crises — the stance that has defined the party throughout the Obama era — while McCain wants to engage in compromise and negotiation.
This gets at the “post policy nihilism” that Steve Benen, Jonathan Bernstein, yours truly and others have been discussing — the idea that the GOP has been driven entirely by a desire to position itself in opposition to the president, and not by any particular set of policy “asks” Republicans might push for as part of any effort to compromise with Obama. The hope among Dems is that this episode has driven home to some GOP lawmakers that they really do face a stark choice between completely giving up on basic governing and finally finding a way to work with the president; that this choice isn’t going away; and that the former option is not tenable over the long term. Along these lines, the fact that other GOP senators are joining McCain in balking at the Tea Party bloc has given Dems a bit of optimism that at a certain point, there is a sizable contingent of Republican lawmakers out there that knows that its current posture can’t hold forever.
The White House has not given up on the possibility of cooperation of some kind. Discussions with GOP lawmakers who might be open to a budget deal — despite their leadership’s adamant opposition — continue. Democrats in the Senate are hopeful that current divisions in the Senate GOP caucus will ultimately force Senate Republicans to agree to go to budget negotiations. That would put more pressure on House Republicans to do the same, and while there’s no telling whether the more radical House GOP would go along, Dems believe they can reap political gain from any House GOP refusal to do so, particularly among independents who theoretically want to see bipartisan cooperation. (Whether budget discussions would actually produce any kind of deal is another question entirely, but here again, Dems think they can reap gains from any GOP refusal to compromise.)
Another possibility Dems hope for is that Republicans will ultimately not stand in the way of the confirmation of Mel Watt to oversee Fannie Mae and Freddy Mac. That could potentially clear the way for “principal reduction,” which could lend relief to struggling homeowners and help the economy. Harry Reid’s escalating threat to revisit rules reform could conceivably lead Republicans to drop opposition to a high profile executive branch nomination or two. Then there’s immigration reform, which faces serious hurdles but which many GOP lawmakers and strategists have decided may be necessary to embrace in the face of demographic realities.
All of this may sound like pretty scarce pickings when it comes to the possibility of future cooperation from Republicans, and in truth, there isn’t much upon which to hang hopes. But as we enter what will likely be a protracted period of stalemate punctuated by regular outbreaks of GOP scandal-mania, Dems and the White House will be in a kind of opportunistic mode in which they will pounce on whatever openings present themselves. At the same time, they’ll do all they can to maximize the political pain and division they can inflict on Republicans for the continued intransigence that is likely to remain the rule, in hopes of driving home that the party’s post-policy nihilism can’t hold forever.