The 1828 presidential campaign was one of the most vicious in all of American history. While campaigning on what would today be called populism (complete with a "Let the people rule" slogan), Andrew Jackson was called a nothing short of a "jackass" by his opponents. Jackson, in a feat of political jiu-jitsu, then embraced the jackass label as his own. This is why, today, the Democratic Party is often represented by an image of a jackass (which is usually euphemistically referred to as a "donkey"). This historical introduction is necessary to put Speaker John Boehner's recent comments regarding Senate Democrats into context and perspective.
The current congressional fight isn't even really one between the two parties, but rather between House Republicans and Senate Republicans. This basic fact isn't going to stop Republicans from both chambers from attempting to throw all the blame -- for their own inadequate grasp of basic math (counting votes) and their own lack of a basic understanding of how bills become laws -- onto the Democrats. When asked about the next step for Republicans in their windmill-tilting over the Department of Homeland Security funding and President Obama's new immigration policy, Boehner tried to shift the blame elsewhere, responding: "Why don't you go ask the Senate Democrats when they're going to get off their ass and do something other than to vote no?"
What Boehner is asking Democrats in the Senate to do, when put in the proper historical and metaphorical context, is to stop being Democrats. Getting up "off their ass" would mean, in essence, jumping on an elephant instead. Boehner is basically mad that Senate Democrats insist on being Democrats and refuse to become Republicans. But, as Andy Jackson would tell you, jackasses are known, more than anything else, for being stubborn. So Boehner's strategy is just not going to work.
OK, I admit that's kind of a long way to go to point out an amusing linguistic parallel, but I felt the journey was worth the reward. Kind of like Chris Christie announcing his new political action committee would be named: "Leadership Matters For America.Org" (just read the initials...).
Jackassery aside, however, the emerging dynamic between John Boehner and Mitch McConnell is one to watch, because it is heading for a showdown in the next few weeks. Sooner or later, one of them is going to have to cave in to the hard, cold reality that Republicans just do not have the votes to impose their will on a Democratic president. Boehner, amusingly, also said in the same interview: "You know, in the gift shop out here, they've got these little booklets on how a bill becomes a law." Boehner is not just happy that Mitch McConnell is now taking a lot of heat (that used to be directed at Boehner), he seems downright delighted by the situation. It's hard to blame him, because Boehner has been the one for the past four years who has had to explain to his own caucus in the House the realities of passing actual legislation. Deflecting this Tea Party wrath onto McConnell is quite obviously a big relief for Boehner.
At the heart of this standoff is the bill to fund the Department of Homeland Security. The Republicans have staked out two positions on the subject which cannot be reconciled (at least, without a whole bunch of Democrats voting with Republicans, which is just not going to happen). Their base demanded a bill which essentially overturned President Obama's new immigration policy. The House let the Tea Party extremists on the issue write this bill, which they then obligingly passed. This absolutely guaranteed that it would never even make it through the Senate for Obama to veto. McConnell obligingly brought it up for a vote. Two of his own Republicans defected in the vote (one voted with the Democrats, one abstained). He brought it up for a vote two more times, just to prove to the House Republicans that the bill was completely dead in the water. It didn't get anywhere near the 60 votes required to move forward.
But the second position Republicans staked out sets up the showdown, since leaders in both houses swore that they would not shut down Homeland Security over their immigration fight with Obama. Somehow -- always without details -- the D.H.S. budget would pass by the deadline at the end of February, and there would be no D.H.S. shutdown. Which means the clock is ticking, with no solution in sight.
Actually, that's not quite true. Anyone who has read that "how a bill becomes law" pamphlet (or seen the "Schoolhouse Rock" video, for that matter) can tell how this is going to end. Republicans will make all the political hay over the issue as they can possibly manage, and then at the end of the day, they will cave in and pass exactly what the Democrats are demanding: a "clean" bill to fund D.H.S., without the big immigration fight. This will happen somewhere around (either just before or right after) the last minute. Everyone knows this is the endgame, including John Boehner and Mitch McConnell. That's why they're so adamant when swearing there will be no shutdown of D.H.S.
The only real question left is one that most Americans could probably care less about: Who will blink first, Boehner or McConnell? This is where things descend into incompetence, if history is to be any guide. If these were normal times, with a more normal Republican Party, they would realize that what is called for is a compromise with Democrats. Perhaps by watering down the anti-Obama pieces of the bill, they might entice some Democrats to vote for it. If they successfully passed a compromise bill through the Senate, they could likely get at least a percentage of what they're now demanding. The House would then reluctantly pass the watered-down bill, and Obama might even reluctantly sign it.
That's how it is supposed to work, and how incremental progress towards a political party's agenda is achieved, when they don't control veto-proof majorities of both houses of Congress. But that is likely not how this standoff will end, no matter what the "how bills become laws" booklet has to say on the matter. "Compromise" is the ultimate insult in the Republican Party these days, and therefore nobody's going to propose anything that addresses Democratic concerns in any way. Instead, Boehner and McConnell are going to engage in a game of "chicken," to see which one blinks first. Rather than working for half a loaf (or even one-quarter of a loaf), both Republican leaders will issue statements condemning each other's lack of action right up to the deadline itself. The "perfect" (as they define it) will, once again, succeed in sacrificing any "good" (again, as they define it) Republicans might have achieved.
You can see these battlelines already starting to take shape. After strategy meetings this week among both House and Senate Republican caucuses, here is a sampling of Republican quotes from both sides of the Capitol. From House member John Carter:
I say to them [Senate Republicans], work 24 hours a day until the February deadline and see if you can't convince the Democrats to actually be patriots and not obstructionists. We've done our job.
John Fleming responded to the Senate Republicans in a similar vein:
Our bill is our bill. This is what we passed, and this is what we expect you to pass. So get it done.
Bradley Byrne, after two Republican senators (who, last year, were House members) had addressed their former House colleagues:
They explained to us how the Senate process works.... From this House member's perspective, and I think that I reflect the vast majority of the members of our conference, the Senate needs to do its job. Period.
Republican senators see things differently, of course. Senator Lindsey Graham chimed in:
Clearly the D.H.S. bill, as constructed, is not going to get 60 votes. So we would urge the House to do something new.
Mitch McConnell is singing a similar tune:
I think it's clear we can't go forward in the Senate, unless you all have heard something I haven't. So the next move obviously is up to the House.
John Boehner, of course, had a different take on things:
The House has done its job. It's time for the Senate to do their work.
After a few more weeks of increasing bitterness between House Republicans and Senate Republicans, we will then experience one of those "midnight is approaching" moments, during which (sooner or later) either McConnell or Boehner will throw up their hands and just go ahead and pass the clean bill. "The math was against us," they will say, "therefore it was impossible to move the Republican bill." Since they've already laid their marker down on not shutting the department down, they will be forced to pass the clean bill. This will pass with a huge Democratic vote, and the votes of several Republicans who feel uneasy about the whole Tea Party strategy in the first place. Then the blame game will begin anew among Republicans.
If I were to make a bet, I would put my money on Mitch McConnell blinking first. Probably late afternoon of the day of the deadline, McConnell will let the Senate vote on the clean bill, and send it over to the House. There are many Senate Republicans who will be extremely vulnerable in the 2016 election (because they represent solid-blue states), so they've got more of a motivating factor to break the logjam. Boehner will oh-so-reluctantly bring the Senate bill up for a vote, and it will pass the House with (again) most Democrats and a handful of Republicans voting for it.
No matter how much ranting and raving we're in store for (from both McConnell and Boehner) over the next few weeks, the outcome seems pretty certain. Democrats are simply not going to "get up off their ass" and become Republicans. Republicans can bloviate about those dastardly, intransigent Democrats all they like (which I'm guessing will be "a whole lot"), but the real viciousness is going to be reserved for the "House Republicans versus Senate Republicans" battle. Either McConnell or Boehner is going to eventually cave first, and thus bear the brunt of all the scapegoating from the Tea Partiers. The only real question which remains is who will blink first.
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