It’s fitting that the external computer keyboard gave up the ghost this evening. All that works now are the tiny laptops keys, and all the useful function keys are in a slightly different place. They’re there somewhere, maybe, but this will take some getting used to – but then in the morning a trip to the local office supply store will fix everything. Keyboards don’t cost much. A new one will fix everything – unless there’s an underlying problem with driver conflicts or something even more arcane. It’s just that it’s a real pain to work under senseless reduced circumstances. These things shouldn’t happen.
They do happen, and this evening they happened on a national scale:
A flurry of last-minute moves by the House, Senate and White House late Monday failed to break a bitter budget standoff over President Obama’s health care law, setting in motion the first government shutdown in nearly two decades.
The impasse meant that 800,000 federal workers were to be furloughed and more than a million others would be asked to work without pay. The Office of Management and Budget issued orders that “agencies should now execute plans for an orderly shutdown due to the absence of appropriations” because Congress had failed to act to keep the federal government financed.
After a series of rapid-fire back and forth legislative maneuvers, the House and Senate ended the day with no resolution, and the Senate halted business until later Tuesday while the House took steps to open talks. But Harry Reid, the Senate majority leader, dismissed as game-playing the House proposal to begin conference committee negotiations.
“We will not go to conference with a gun to our heads,” he said, demanding that the House accept the Senate’s six-week stopgap spending bill, which has no policy prescriptions, before negotiations begin.
What’s to negotiate? Republicans didn’t have the votes to stop the Affordable Care Act from passing in 2010. They didn’t have the votes to repeal it in 2011. They didn’t have the votes to win the presidency and the Senate by campaigning against it in 2012, explicitly. The law was passed fair and square, long ago, by both houses of Congress, and survived a Supreme Court challenge too – and the Roberts court is the most conservative we’ve had since the Harding administration. The rules of the system were followed, scrupulously, and there are explicit rules for repealing a law. You find the votes to pass something else in its place. If you don’t have the votes, you don’t have the votes. A minority of a minority doesn’t get to stop what the majority enacted, even if they can threaten to shut down the government, crippling the economy, or force the United States unto default, collapsing the world’s economy for a generation or two – both matters entirely unrelated to Obamacare.
This is pretty simple. The angry minority doesn’t get to force the repeal what the majority enacted, or even demand that its implementation be delayed for a year, or two or three, unless you want to change our system of government, to a new system where laws duly enacted and upheld in the courts can just go away, if certain parties are able to create a credible real threat, a deadly one, about something else entirely. Obama taught constitutional law and he is refusing to negotiate away the system we’ve had in place since 1787 – when we ratified that Constitution thing. The Democrats are all with him on that, as are all sorts of folks on the right – even John McCain and Karl Rove and Bill O’Reilly. If you want to change something, win elections. Otherwise, suck it up and move on.
The current House Republicans just can’t do that:
In the hours leading up the deadline, House Republican leaders won approval, in a vote of 228 to 201, of a new plan to tie further government spending to a one-year delay in a requirement that individuals buy health insurance. The House proposal would deny federal subsidies to members of Congress, Capitol Hill staff, executive branch political appointees, White House staff, and the president and vice president, who would be forced to buy their health coverage on the Affordable Care Act’s new insurance exchanges.
That last bit was no more than pointless spite, and less than an hour later, and with almost no debate at all, the Senate killed the House bill and sent the original stopgap spending bill right back to them, free of their demands. They had already passed a “clean” bill, with Republican votes too. Earlier in the day they’d taken all of twenty-five minutes to convene and dispose of that first budget proposal from the House Republicans. The second one, more of the same, fared no better:
“They’ve lost their minds,” [Majority Leader Harry] Reid said, before disposing of the House bill. “They keep trying to do the same thing over and over again.”
So that’s that:
The federal government was then left essentially to run out of money at midnight, the end of the fiscal year, although the president signed a measure late Monday that would allow members of the military to continue to be paid.
“You don’t get to extract a ransom for doing your job,” Mr. Obama said in the White House briefing room as the clock ticked to midnight.
That may be starting to sink in:
Cracks in the party were opening into fissures of frustration.
“You have this group that keeps saying somehow if you’re not with them, you’re for Obamacare,” said Representative Devin Nunes, Republican of California. “If you’re not with exactly their plan, doing what they want to do, then you’re somehow for Obamacare, and it’s just getting a little old.”
“It’s moronic to shut down the government over this,” he continued.
It was far from certain that Republicans could remain unified on their insistence on health care concessions if a shutdown lasted for some time. Asked whether Republicans could hold together through the end of the week, Representative Phil Gingrey of Georgia, one of the more conservative members, answered: “I don’t know. I don’t know.”
This was verging on the pathetic:
Mr. Reid excoriated what he called the “banana Republican mind-set” of the House. He called on the speaker to put the Senate bill up for a vote, which would almost certainly pass in the House because of overwhelming Democratic support and backing from moderate Republicans.
Think about that. All that House Speaker John Boehner has to do is allow the House to vote on the Senate’s “clean” bill, the one that funds the government for the next six weeks and ignores the artificially introduced issue of Obamacare – and if they don’t like that “clean” bill they can vote it down. They sent it over. What do you guys think? Let’s vote on it. Let the chips fall as they may.
That’s called majority rule, but that “clean” Senate bill would pass the House easily and that frightens him. As House Speaker he can choose which bills should be allowed a vote, and this isn’t one of them. His rule, what’s known as the Hastert Rule, is that he will allow nothing to get a full House vote unless a solid majority of his own party wants a full vote. His party doesn’t want that. They’d lose. Boehner doesn’t want that either. His speakership is hanging by a thread. He’s frightened. He doesn’t want to lose his job. Yes, this whole thing could be taken care of in ten minutes – no shutdown, Obamacare to be discussed on its own merits – but it won’t be.
Byron York at the Washington Examiner explains the details of this in his item on how thirty House Republicans are forcing the Obamacare fight:
Insiders estimate that about 30 House Republicans believe strongly that Obamacare is such a far-reaching and harmful law that the GOP should do everything it can – everything – to stop it or slow it down. That includes precipitating a standoff leading to a government shutdown. “This isn’t just another bill,” Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., one of the most vocal of the 30, told me. “This isn’t load limits on turnip trucks that we’re talking about. This is … an extremely consequential bill that will impact every American, and that’s why you have such passionate opinions.”
Another 20 to 30 GOP members sympathize with that position but might be willing to compromise, except for the fact that they fear a primary challenge from the Right.
In the continuing resolution fight, it is the 30 most committed members, along with their 20-30 allies in the next-most-committed group, who are setting the House Republican agenda. The ones pushing for a fight over Obamacare, even if it leads to a shutdown, are controlling what the House does.
The Republicans really are a minority – they control only the House, not the Senate or the White House – and thus this is that minority of a minority, and York sees two reasons why that works well enough to keep control of things only in a narrow way:
One, the Republican majority in the House is fairly narrow. And two, Democrats have been extraordinarily unified in opposing GOP proposals.
It takes 217 votes to pass a bill in the House. Republicans can pass one all by themselves, but only if they keep 217 out of the total 233 GOP lawmakers on board. If more than 16 GOP lawmakers jump ship, Speaker John Boehner won’t have enough Republican votes to pass any given bill.
If the Democrats hang together, as they do, Boehner must do everything he can to please every single one his Republicans, so he tries to. Advantage, Democrats! York is none too happy with this:
Just look at what a member of the Republican majority told me after House Republicans had taken another step toward confrontation. “Analysts say the Congressional GOP doesn’t understand strategy,” the Republican said. “I’m like, ‘Congressional GOP’ my ass! It’s 30 idiots who can’t get us to 217.”
Boehner tries to walk a delicate line within his conference. But the chances are good that in the end, the majority of Republicans – the 200, or at least 175 – will take control. If Boehner offers them a “clean” continuing resolution, they will vote for it.
When Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho, one of the Republicans committed to defunding or delaying Obamacare, appeared on “Meet the Press,” he was asked whether he was willing to vote for a resolution that funded the government but did not touch Obamacare. “I am not,” Labrador answered. “But I think there are enough people in the Republican Party willing to do that. And I think that is what you are going to see.”
When the time comes, lots of Democrats will vote for the resolution, too, which means the final spending measure, when it finally comes, will likely pass with a big majority.
All this will come to nothing:
The speaker has bent over backwards to give the most committed members of his party their say. After another defeat or two, and under the pressure of a shutdown, Boehner will finally turn to the 30 and say, “We tried it your way, over and over. Now, the majority will pass a resolution.”
It will all have been for nothing – 800,000 federal workers furloughed and more than a million others asked to work without pay – but maybe it had to happen this way, as Jonathan Chait explains:
In January, demoralized House Republicans retreated to Williamsburg, Virginia, to plot out their legislative strategy for President Obama’s second term. Conservatives were angry that their leaders had been unable to stop the expiration of the Bush tax cuts on high incomes, and sought assurances from their leaders that no further compromises would be forthcoming. The agreement that followed, which Republicans called “The Williamsburg Accord,” received obsessive coverage in the conservative media but scant attention in the mainstream press. (The phrase “Williamsburg Accord” has appeared once in the Washington Post and not at all in the New York Times.)
But the decision House Republicans made in January has set the party on the course it has followed since.
This is what explains the new federal government shutdown, and possibly a sovereign debt crisis after that, as it is “the inevitable product of a conscious party strategy” as Chait sees it:
Just as Republicans responded to their 2008 defeat by moving farther right, they responded to the 2012 defeat by moving right yet again. Since they had begun from a position of total opposition to the entire Obama agenda, the newer rightward lurch took the form of trying to wrest concessions from Obama by provoking a series of crises.
The first element of the strategy is a kind of legislative strike. Initially, House Republicans decided to boycott all direct negotiations with President Obama, and then subsequently extended that boycott to negotiations with the Democratic Senate. (Senate Democrats have spent months pleading with House Republicans to negotiate with them, to no avail.) This kind of refusal to even enter negotiations is highly unusual. The way to make sense of it is that Republicans have planned since January to force Obama to accede to large chunks of the Republican agenda, without Republicans having to offer any policy concessions of their own.
That was easier said than done:
Republicans have fallen out, often sharply, over which hostages to ransom, with the most conservative ones favoring a government shutdown threat and the more pragmatic wing, oddly, endorsing a debt default threat. They have also struggled to define the terms of their ransom. The Williamsburg Accord initially envisioned forcing Obama to sign spending cuts, or some form of the Paul Ryan budget. During the summer, Republicans flirted with making Obama lock in lower marginal tax rates. Recently, Republicans settled on pressuring him to kill his healthcare law. But the general contours of the legislative strike, and the plan of obtaining policy victories without offering any policy concessions, has enjoyed general agreement within the party.
Chait thinks the media never quite got it:
The history is important because much of the news coverage and centrist commentary has leaned heavily on the idea that the crises in Washington have come about because of some nebulous failure of bipartisanship. The Washington Post editorial page implores both sides to compromise, without explaining why only one party should have to offer policy concessions to keep the government running.
Yep, watch CNN and all the rest – the two sides share the blame in equal measure. That’s the word, and that’s nonsense.
Now the fun begins:
House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) didn’t say much after his chamber voted to go to conference with the Senate over the temporary government spending bill – a move that shut the government down Tuesday.
“The House has made its position known very clearly. We believe we should fund government, and we think there ought to basic fairness for all Americans under Obamacare,” Boehner said. “The Senate has continued to reject our offers, but under the Constitution, there’s a way to resolve this problem and that is to go to conference and talk through your differences. I would hope that the Senate would accept our offer to go to conference and discuss this so that we can resolve this for the American people.”
He took two questions. Asked if the House would vote on a government spending bill without changes to Obamacare, Boehner was evasive.
“We are hoping that the Senate will take our offer to go to conference and let us resolve our differences,” Boehner said.
Asked what he would say to federal employees who would be affected by the shutdown, he ignored the question.
“The House has voted to keep the government open, but we also want basic fairness under Obamacare,” Boehner said.
He then walked away from the microphones.
A comment from David Kurtz:
Terse, acerbic John Boehner was just on display in a middle of the night press conference that didn’t seem to serve any purpose for him or his party. With the government shutdown a little more than an hour old and his party having just voted to approve a negotiating gambit that the Democratic Senate rejected before it even became official, all eyes were on Boehner for clues about what comes next – and what tone he would set.
He ignored a couple of questions – including one about what he would say to those government workers who would be furloughed – instead sticking to talking points about legislative arcana. Then he just as abruptly walked away.
If this is going to be the public face of the Republican Party for the duration of the shutdown, it’s going to be more politically painful than most people predicted.
It’s not just government workers and government contractors who will now find themselves in reduced circumstances. John Boehner is there too now, as are all Republicans.
Much more will be said about this in the coming days, and discussed here, but not now. It’s those reduced circumstances. This miniature keyboard just won’t do. That problem can be fixed in the morning of course. Our broken political system will take a bit more time.