A deal in which Senate leaders reach bipartisan agreement and the House then ratifies the deal with more Democratic than Republican votes is 1) basically what everyone guessed would happen in the shutdown fight and is 2) what happens nearly every time something controversial comes up since the 2010 elections. But by making the fight tied to sequestration spending, the GOP might be in a better position than could have been expected.
It was clear that Speaker John Boehner's vocal and visceral conservative base needed to be mollified before it would acquiesce to any sort of government funding bill or debt ceiling increase. Late last year, when the talk of the town was the "fiscal cliff" — the simultaneous need to fund the government, increase the debt limit, and deal with the expiration of the Bush tax cuts — Boehner faced a fairly significant threat to his position as leader of the Republican caucus. That opposition stemmed in part from Boehner's ready willingness to work around the so-called "Hastert Rule," an informal policy that required Republicans to have enough support within their own party to pass any legislation brought to the floor for a vote. Among the measures that weren't subject to the Hastert Rule was the fiscal cliff itself.
There was basically no reason to think that this time would be any different. But the vote in which Boehner was elected Speaker by an uncomfortably small margin made clear that his conservative base would be hostile to any repeat of what happened in January. The New Yorker's Ryan Lizza summarizes the line of thinking in a tweet:
Ending how most predicted: cons force shutdown>public support collapses>O doesn't negotiate until he does>Sen deal w/figleaf>Boehner jammed.— Ryan Lizza (@RyanLizza) October 14, 2013
Boehner gives the conservatives enough rope to see that their plan won't work; with some small concession in hand, he can use the Senate deal as cover for a vote in front of the full House. Hastert Rule set aside, progress made.
It didn't have to be this way, of course. Boehner could have allowed a vote on an unamended funding resolution — a vote that, again, his No. 2 Eric Cantor all but called a victory in itself as it locked in sequestration-level funding. The two-week-old shutdown could have been avoided even earlier, had Boehner stuck to his commitment to follow "regular order," going to conference committee with the Senate to work out a budget deal before the deadlines for the budget and the debt ceiling arrived. Boehner decided to take the risk that President Obama might more readily cave in the face of the looming deadlines. Obama didn't.
If the deal being floated at this point does make its way back to the House, there's not much time for Boehner to do much but approve it. Even as it is, there's concern that the measure — including short-term measures to open government and raise the debt ceiling — might not make it out of the Senate in time, especially if motivated senators decide to obstruct its progress. In order to approve the measure, Boehner will need to "throw the Tea Party overboard," in the words of The Washington Post's Greg Sargent. Unlike past similar abandonments of the conservatives' priorities, Boehner has more evidence at-hand that their political plans simply don't work, including a poll out Monday showing that Republicans bear the brunt of the blame for the unpopular shutdown. Not that this will convince Boehner's far right wing, a group apparently still convinced at least in public of their ongoing success, but at least he has the evidence.
So far, each time a deal has seemed to be within reach, one party or another has said no, sinking the country even further into this morass? Why should we feel confident that this time is different? For one thing, because it's playing out exactly as the politics predicted: Boehner can now say, "we tried it your way." For another, moving the fight to December over a January budget deadline actually puts Republicans in a position of renewed strength as it makes the fight about the sequestration. "The timing of all this is designed to create a fight about sequestration," Ezra Klein writes. "The Jan. 15 deadline means funding for the federal government runs out at the exact moment sequestration's deeper cuts kick in." So by negotiating at that point, the choices are between keeping existing funding — already cut savagely from pre-sequestration levels — and allowing even further cuts.
That's the one surprise to emerge out of all of this. It's playing out as could have been predicted. It hasn't been good for Republicans, by any stretch, nor is it clear that Boehner's done his own leadership any favors. But where the wheel wavered and fell over turns out to be a spot that actually isn't bad for House Republicans — and only 10 months before all of them are up for reelection.
Photo: Boehner seeing stars. (AP)