Not once, but twice, Republican House leaders tried to tweak the purported Senate deal so as to get House radicals on board. The efforts were in some respect worse for conservatives than the Senate version (e.g. eliminating relief from the medical device tax). Twice the same crew that landed the country in this precarious position — Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) and Mike Lee (R-Utah), House hard-liners and outside groups like Heritage Action — refused to be mollified. There is no pleasing people who don’t want to be pleased. The day ended with a spectacular show of irresponsibility and nihilism by the House right wing and significant questions as to why House leadership bothered to go chasing them.
Tuesday evening, the Senate minority leader’s communications director Don Stewart put out word: “Given tonight’s events, the Leaders have decided to work toward a solution that would reopen the government and prevent default. They are optimistic an agreement can be reached.” On background House Republicans were indicating they’d take the Senate version. The grown-ups are back.
What happened to the House moderates? Was this a grand plot to make the House crazies look ridiculous. (On this a leadership adviser said, “I wish we were that good.”)
Short of default, which is inconceivable, the answer seems to rest with passage of the Senate bill and, yes, House agreement with significant Democratic support. If that plays out, the party and the country will be spared an economic disaster. The GOP should nevertheless remember their two-week nightmare.
The danger here is that the House GOP hard-liners will convince enough voters to, for the sake of stability (!), give Democrats control of the House and fumble away another opportunity to win a majority in the Senate. The appeal is simple: Enough. End the chaos.
In the most optimistic scenario the hard-liners self-immolation will strengthen House and Senate moderates, spare Sens. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) from serious difficulty from Cruz-minded primary challenges and maybe even cost some House extremists their seats. In this vein, Cruz is greatly harmed should he or like-minded extremists seek the presidency. What is their message? More partisan dysfunction! The debacle certainly strengthens the hand of governors in the 2016 presidential contest who can promise to end the government by temper tantrum. And it might even chasten the more honest conservative talk show hosts and pundits, reminding them of the folly of cheering radicals.
Whether the GOP has hit rock bottom depends in large part on the Sanity Caucus — the conservative but responsible members in both houses and their ability to craft useful proposals and demonstrate that the GOP and Heritage Action are not one and the same. In fact, their interests are diametrically opposed. The latter would dearly love to be back in the opposition in the House in full rant mode and blaming the very figures who resisted this strategy. The GOP, however, can only succeed by muffling these radical voices and returning to its status as the party of economic common sense and restrained but functional government.
Given the choice between the party that created the Obamacare fiasco and the party that created the shutdown fiasco voters may be stumped, and entirely turned off. Democrats however can’t abandon Obamacare, while Republicans can recover their bearings and reject the politics of sabotage and extremism. For that, center-right Americans can be at least a tad optimistic that this is the end, not the beginning, of the GOP’s self-induced trauma.