11/11/2005 09:13 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

What's Really Going On Here, Anyway?

As the members of the House of Representatives fled Washington yesterday, leaving the federal budget process in disarray, lots of spinning was going on. The most remarkable story appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, where Representative Richard Pombo attributed the collapse of the Republican budget process to the fact that, after the House leadership removed Arctic and coastal oil drilling to obtain the votes of moderate Republicans, he and his fellow conservative members of the House Committee on Resources told House Whip Roy Blunt that he could not longer count on their votes for a bill that failed to contain "American energy production."

So, we have the stunning picture of a key member of the Republican leadership, Pombo, a committee chairman picked by Speaker Hastert (or more probably by former Majority Leader Tom DeLay) over many other junior members, publicly announcing that he will disloyally sabotage his own party's entire fiscal agenda over a provision to allow oil drilling off the coasts -- oil drilling that Pombo personally says he opposes!

Earlier in the day, Commerce Committee Chairman Joe Barton, the oil industry's favorite chairman, had signaled that he too was no longer a loyal member of the Republican team.

This seemed unlikely to the Democrats, who viewed the whole effort as a sham by the Republican leadership to whip the moderates back into line. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said that she believed the Republicans would stick to their agenda -- "tax cuts to the wealthiest ... increase the deficit."

Meanwhile, the moderate Republicans portrayed themselves as firmly committed -- now that they seem to have the upper hand. "We made it clear in our meetings we will not waver in our position," was how New Hampshire's Charles Bass put it.

The Washington Post attributed the Budget bill's collapse to last Tuesday's electoral rebuff to Bush's popularity:

"The fractures were always there. The difference was the White House was always able to hold them in line because of perceived power," said Tony Fabrizio, a Republican pollster. "After Tuesday's election, it's 'Why are we following these guys? They're taking us off the cliff.' "

Meanwhile, on the Senate side, Pete Domenici's Energy Committee staff were saying that offshore oil drilling is dead for the year:

"There is no plan to address it this year -- not in budget reconciliation, not in appropriations, not as a stand-alone bill," said Marnie Funk, communication director for the committee.

So what will happen next week when Congress returns? A lot depends, I suspect, on how sour a mood the members, particularly the moderate Republicans, encounter back home over the Veteran's Day weekend. I suspect that, at the end of the day, Committee Chairmen like Pombo and Barton will vote for a reconciliation package that cuts social spending, even if doesn't drill the Arctic and the coasts. They're trying to give the leadership leverage to bully the moderates again. If the moderates were to stand firm, then Washington wouldl become a different town for the next year.

I'm reminded of a meeting on the Arctic that we had with one of the key moderate members of Congress a month ago. He said that the Republican Study Group, the right-wing caucus within the right-wing caucus of the Republican Party, had been telling him that now that DeLay had been taken out of his leadership role, "the Republican caucus is going to start standing for something again." They then told the moderate congressman, "But you might not like what we stand for." "Well," came the response, "then I might not vote for it."

That episode makes me wonder, since the Democrats are so bad at being in the opposition, and since the Republicans are showing signs that they really can't stand the compromises that come with governing, whether perhaps the American people wouldn't be happier if each party were returned to the role that it's comfortable with and understands -- Democrats govern and compromise, Republicans oppose and obstruct, and the public's business gets done, even if imperfectly. Right now, the voters don't really trust anyone to govern -- perhaps because both parties are playing roles they aren't very good at.