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The Morning Plum: GOP leaders reap the whirlwind

Is there any bill funding the government — at any level of spending — that Republicans alone can pass out of the House at this point?

Congress has gone home for recess after a series of botched votes that are cause for deep pessimism about the future. The basic problem here is not hard to divine. The Senate GOP filibuster of the transportation bill yesterday, and the House GOP decision to yank its version of the same the day before that, confirm that Republicans may not be able to pass a spending bill at sequester levels, even as they won’t support one at higher spending levels, either.

As multiple reports detail this morning — Lori Montgomery’s piece gets the framing exactly right —  the bill that spends at sequester levels alienates moderate Republicans who balk at specific spending cuts. Meanwhile, Republicans can’t accept higher spending levels because … the goal of keeping spending as low as possible has become a moral crusade, a higher calling, that can never be questioned, even if they are not willing or able to say how they would accomplish this.

If this sounds crazy, that’s because it is. But this craziness has a cause. Republican leaders have nurtured it for years, and now they are stuck in a trap of their own creation.

As I noted here yesterday, by refusing to definitively shoot down the idea that Obamacare should be defunded through a government shutdown confrontation, John Boehner and GOP leaders continue to feed the delusion that this could happen. This could make it harder for Republican leaders later because conservatives — thanks also to years of the GOP leadership’s nurturing of Obamacare repeal fantasies — could be even less likely to accept any bill funding the government that doesn’t also defund Obamcare.

But it needs to be noted that the same dynamic is at play on spending. Republican leaders have been feeding the base delusions about spending for literally years now. The Paul Ryan fiscal blueprint has been enshrined as the party’s Holy text, but its basic goal of balancing the budget in 10 years with no new revenues has always been a pipe dream, as this week’s events showed. What’s more, GOP leaders have steadily misled their voters about the concessions Democrats have already made on spending cuts, and about the concessions Obama continues to offer them now.

It is any wonder conservatives won’t accept compromises on spending and continue to clamor for the total destruction of Obamacare, putting us on the road to a shutdown that even some Republicans and conservatives say is simply nuts? As Paul Krugman puts it:

In the short run the point is that Republican leaders are about to reap the whirlwind, because they haven’t had the courage to tell the base that Obamacare is here to stay, that the sequester is in fact intolerable, and that in general they have at least for now lost the war over the shape of American society. As a result, we’re looking at many drama-filled months, with a high probability of government shutdowns and even debt defaults.

The continuing sequester cuts constitute the GOP’s only recent meaningful victory in the great battle over the size of government, so Republicans aren’t going to loosen their grip on the sequester without a huge struggle. But this week they punted on passing something that does implement sequester-level spending, because in the real world, draconian spending cuts are difficult, unpopular, and even unworkable. If this basic dynamic holds, the only way out will be for Republicans to agree to pass a measure funding the government with the help of Democrats. GOP leaders have created this mess — and it could end up having catastrophic consequences — but Nancy Pelosi may well have to bail them out of it.

* BROAD SUPPORT FOR SENATE IMMIGRATION BILL: A new Quinnipiac poll finds that 64 percent of voters support the Senate immigration bill, including 60 percent of Republicans. How to square this with polls showing that Republicans oppose a path to citizenship?

One possibility: when polls offer a stark choice — do you support citizenship or not — Republicans say No. But the Q-poll tells readers the Senate bill includes citizenship and conditions attached, plus a massive buildup of border security. Other polls that do this also find GOP support for this combination. Bottom line: we need some polling guru type to get to the bottom of what Republican voters really think about immigration reform. This debate is being shaped by assumptions about public opinion — particularly among Republicans — that have not been seriously scrutinized

* OBAMA PRESSES GOP SENATORS TO COMPROMISE: The President met late yesterday with a block of GOP Senators who are still thought to be open to a big budget compromise to replace the sequester. However, even if a deal were reached — yesterday’s Senate filibuster of the transportation bill makes that seem less likely — the House’s inability to pass its own version at sequester levels casts doubt on whether the House would ever go along:

Speaker John A. Boehner said he had no intention of retreating from the spending levels set by the sequester, and insisted that in September, Republican leaders would find the votes to pass spending bills at that level. “I’m sure our August recess will have our members in a better mood when they come back,” he said.

We are now debating whether the House can even pass a bill at the sequester level, let alone at higher levels that might be agreed upon in a deal between the White House and Senate.

* MODERATE REPUBLICANS DISCOVER DOWNSIDE TO SPENDING CUTS: Also in the above story, this explanation for the impasse — that moderate Republicans can’t accept specific sequester level cuts — is instructive:

Moderate Republicans from the Northeast have found such cuts impossible to swallow, and when their numbers were combined with ardent conservatives who never support appropriations bills, leaders have found themselves short by dozens of votes. Representative Jim Gerlach, Republican of Pennsylvania, said he could not accept Amtrak cuts, which would have reduced rail financing by one-third, and cuts to Community Development Block Grants below the level set when the program began under President Gerald R. Ford.

Yes, it turns out that spending cuts have a downside: they cut spending on things that even moderate Republicans like.

* OBAMACARE REPEAL HAS BECOME BOEHNER’S BURDEN: The Hill gets this exactly right: The drive to destroy Obamacare has now become an albatross for John Boehner, as he tries to figure out how to deal with the defund-Obamacare movement. This is key:

The Speaker privately opposes the strategy, but he has yet to rule it out and wants to let his conference determine the way forward over the August recess.

As noted above, the failure to rule this out — even though Boehner himself seems to know it’s insane — is exacerbating the problem.

* JANET YELLEN AND THE BATTLE FOR THE FED CHAIR: Paul Krugman devotes a whole column to rebuffing the arguments against Yellen as the next Fed chair, noting that those claiming she lacks “gravitas” have been wrong about everything, and ending on this suggestive point:

So is Janet Yellen the only possible candidate to be the next leader of the Fed? Of course not. But the case for someone else should be made on the merits — and, so far, that hasn’t been what’s happening.

Krugman doesn’t mention the words “Larry Summers,” but his meaning here is clear: the substantive case for Summers has not been made.

 * CAN GRIMES REALLY DEFEAT MITCH MCCONNELL? Mike Tomasky makes the case that Alison Lundergan Grimes really can defeat the Senate GOP leader, for a number of reasons: Kentucky is not as red as folks think; McConnell may have finally worn out voters; and Grimes is actually running a very good campaign. That last point in particular is contrary to conventional wisdom, which has held that Grimes’ kickoff was just awful.


Michael McAuliff notes that Tom Cotton, the conservative hero who’s running against Senator Mark Pryor, came out for keeping the government out of the student loan business despite receiving federally backed Stafford loans to help pay for his own education.

Charles Krauthammer flatly dismisses the defund-Obama crusade being waged by Ted Cruz, Mike Lee and other conservatives as crazy, and says a government shutdown could not be more helpful to Democrats.

A Democratic poll finds Grimes has taken a two point lead over McConnell.

Steve Benen on the GOP drive to cut food stamps by $40 billion, and why that could make it harder to pass anything at all.

Glenn Kessler digs into Paul Ryan’s claims that $15 trillion has been spent on a failed War On Poverty and finds them to be just a tad simplistic for such a complicated subject (hardly surprising from an adherent to “makers and takers” philosophy).