09/11/2013 05:44 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Diplomatic Solution Fails (In GOP)

This is not an article about Syria. It is an article about a diplomatic solution meant to prevent a catastrophe, but the subject falls entirely within the realm of domestic policy. Just wanted to be straight on that, in case that headline was misleading.

Speaker of the House John Boehner today had to postpone a vote on the budget. He had thought he had a bill which could appease both sides of his own party's caucus but it seems his diplomatic solution to the crisis was not acceptable enough to pass with just Republican votes. Boehner has proven, once again, that herding the cats of the GOP is currently nearly impossible, given the gaping split between the Tea Party hardliners and the saner Republicans who still care about the possibility of winning future elections. Boehner's diplomatic compromise was insufficiently catastrophic for the Tea Party, and rather than watching it go down in flames on the House floor, Boehner decided to suffer the lesser embarrassment of "delaying" the vote.

This is not exactly a new problem for Boehner. In the past few years, virtually all of the significant legislation that has passed the House has done so with the lion's share of the "yea" votes coming from Democrats. Boehner half-heartedly goes along with the brinksmanship emanating from his Tea Party wing, but then at the last minute agrees to put a bill forward which passes because most Democrats join with the saner Republicans to avoid catastrophe (usually of the financial kind). Boehner has a very thin tightrope to walk with his own party, where he allows the extremists plenty of time to rant and rave and pass ridiculous bills that don't have a prayer of making it through the Senate -- but then, in the end, forces on his own party a reasonable compromise. He hopes that, by doing so, the extremists will be placated while at the same time avoiding the meltdown of the American economy (which seems to be the extremists' favorite hostage).

The scenario this time around is no different. There is not (at least, not yet) a cute label for the disaster that looms (no "fiscal cliff" talk in the media, in other words), but the situation is indeed a familiar one. If the Tea Partiers don't get X, they will cause Y. As always, Y involves a fiscal calamity -- this time around, the shutdown of the federal government because if there is no budget in place by the first of October then the government has no mandate to spend any money. The X in the equation, this time, is driving a stake through the heart of Obamacare and killing it off once and for all.

The Tea Partiers are unrelenting in their demands that the House of Representatives bend both the Senate and a Democratic president to their will. That this is outside the realm of possibility does not deter them in the slightest. They're going to hold their breath and turn blue before they'll vote on any budget which does not defund Obamacare completely. So there.

John Boehner knows this for the suicidal behavior it is (for his party). If the Tea Partiers manage to make good on their threat, then soldiers will not get their paychecks, Social Security checks will halt, the National Parks will shut their gates, and the public will be outraged. The Tea Partiers truly believe they can channel that outrage and turn it against Senate Democrats and President Obama, but Boehner knows this is just not how it's going to play out with the public. Republicans will be blamed -- big time -- and the voters might just remember it in next year's election. If the Tea Party gets its way, it may lead to Speaker Nancy Pelosi taking the gavel in January of 2015. Which, again, Boehner is fully aware of.

So he tried to come up with a gimmick to satisfy the extremists. The House would vote on a bill which funded the government (but kept the sequester) for a few months, and also completely defunded Obamacare. The gimmick was that when the bill was sent to the Senate, it would somehow be "decoupled" and split into two bills. The Senate would have to vote on both (although it's unclear how the House could force this, the Senate being a separate house in the legislature with its own rules, after all), so the Senate could pass the "clean" budget bill while rejecting the defunding of Obamacare. This way, Boehner figured, the Tea Partiers could all go campaign on how they voted to defund Obamacare, but the budget bill would actually make it into law and the government shutdown would be averted. Also, we could then have this fight all over again in December, just in time for the holidays.

This just made too much sense for the rank and file House Republicans, though. Boehner had to reluctantly postpone the vote, because he knew he didn't have the votes to pass it in his own party. Which brings us back to square one, really. The Tea Party's absolutism seems triumphant -- they seem almost eager to shut down the government. Which leaves only one real path for Boehner to follow -- allow Democrats to propose a bill that can gain the couple of dozen votes it would need from Republicans to pass. Neither option is very palatable for Boehner.

It's hard not to conclude that Boehner's job is on the line on this, one way or another. This issue isn't going to go away with a single vote. We will likely have three of these crises before the end of the year -- the October budget deadline, the national debt ceiling, and then (if they pass a short-term "continuing resolution" to avoid the first budget deadline) the budget fight all over again in a few weeks. The Tea Partiers see each of these as hostage-taking opportunities. They are in no mood to compromise over anything (indeed, "compromise" is a dirty word to them). If Boehner gives in to the Tea Party and refuses to deal with the Democrats, then one or another of these possible catastrophes will take place. If this leads to a Democratic takeover of the House next year, then Boehner loses his speakership. Conversely, if Boehner does strike last-minute deals with Democrats to avert the catastrophes, then the Tea Partiers are going to be livid with rage at him. And Tea Partiers don't forget such slights easily -- meaning that even if Republicans manage to hang onto their control of the House in 2014, John Boehner's leadership could be challenged right after the election and he could lose his speakership to Eric Cantor (or someone equally acceptable to the Tea Party wing).

John Boehner tried a diplomatic solution, to allow Tea Partiers to vote for the umpteenth time against Obamacare while still allowing some sort of budget to pass so the government doesn't shut its doors in October. This compromise was just rejected by the Tea Partiers. Boehner's options seem to be narrowing. He really doesn't want to shut the government down, but at this point the only way he has to avoid it is to work with the Democrats to pass something before the deadline. Which would lead to an epic Tea Party tantrum. You've got to at least give Boehner credit for attempting some gimmickry to appease the Tea Partiers while still getting things done, but as of now it looks like his proposed diplomatic solution has failed.


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