The Braveheart Boys

There are a few union halls in this neighborhood. Three blocks east it’s the Motion Picture Editors Guild, next door to the International Cinematographers Guild – where we all go to vote every other November, the place with the cool antique movie cameras in the lobby. And one block down the hill is the big shiny-glass Directors Guild of America – with its tight security. You don’t get in there, or you don’t unless there’s a special event and you know somebody. And that was the case a few years ago when a friend had special access to see a few pre-release screenings of major big-studio movies – each followed by a panel discussion with the director, or the assistant directors, or the art director, and sometimes even the star of the thing. And in early 1995, a few weeks before its May release, it was Braveheart – you know, that movie about William Wallace, the thirteenth-century Scottish warrior, and all about the bloody First War of Scottish Independence, fought against Edward I of England of course. Yes, that’s an odd subject matter, but the movie won all sorts of awards – including Best Picture and Best Director that year. And since Mel Gibson was both the director and the star in this case, there he was as the lights came up after the final credits rolled out, ready to field questions.

It’s hard to remember now, after all these years, just what he said. But he did defend his choice of subject matter – something about heroism and standing up to oppression, and martyrdom for a cause, being universal. And lots of blood and gore, and suffering and pain shown close-up, in all its reality, were really important too. And he seemed a hateful little man, quite enamored with all the bloody detail, as if that’s what excited him. Of course that also explains his later movie about Jesus – which was entirely about the crucifixion of Jesus, not about Jesus’ life, or Jesus’ teaching, or about theology in any way at all. Gibson said that film was just about the final pain, all of it, shown in extended close-up full-color wide-screen excruciating detail – and that was the whole point.

So there was Mel Gibson a few years ago, a short little hyper-aggressive feisty follow with a giant ego, seeming ready to pick any fight – and thrilled by the idea of intense pain and suffering, and generally just bloodthirsty as hell. But then there was a market for that sort of thing at the time, and perhaps there still is – although whatever inner demons drove this man did catch up with him. In Hollywood you just don’t scream out that you hate all Jews, because they’re out to take over and rule the world – and then apologize. Gibson doesn’t get much work these days. And you won’t run into him at Canter’s down on Fairfax.

But the impulse is what is interesting here – to suffer greatly, and suffer gladly and willingly, and to inflict intense suffering on others, for some great idealistic good. And oddly, that’s kind of a Republican thing these days. There was that town hall meeting in Iowa where Rick Santorum carefully explained the value of suffering – where he explained that all sorts of policies – food stamps, Medicaid and all the rest – seem problematic to him. And that was simple – “If you’re a Christian, suffering is part of life, and it’s not a bad thing. It’s an essential thing.”

Mel Gibson would understand that. And he’d probably understand what Steve Benen neatly summarizes here:

After the Senate approved a two-month extension of the payroll tax break, 89 to 10, the upper chamber not only assumed the House would be responsible, it also announced it’s done until January. This morning, Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said that won’t do – the Senate, he said, has to come back, get ready for more compromising, and make House Republicans happy.

The New York Times has the gory details – middle-income and lower-income folks will have far less money to spend in January, and millions will lose the unemployment coverage and perhaps then lose everything – major suffering and pain – but for a greater good. That would be embarrassing Obama, or something.

But Benen cites Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s statement that afternoon that showed that Boehner has limited options:

My House colleagues should be clear on what their vote means today. If Republicans vote down the bipartisan compromise negotiated by Republican and Democratic leaders, and passed by 89 senators including 39 Republicans, their intransigence will mean that in ten days, 160 million middle class Americans will see a tax increase, over two million Americans will begin losing their unemployment benefits, and millions of senior citizens on Medicare could find it harder to receive treatment from physicians.

Senator McConnell and I negotiated a compromise at Speaker Boehner’s request. I will not re-open negotiations until the House follows through and passes this agreement that was negotiated by Republican leaders, and supported by 90 percent of the Senate.

This is a question of whether the House of Representatives will be able to fulfill the basic legislative function of passing an overwhelmingly bipartisan agreement, in order to protect the economic security of millions of middle-class Americans. Democratic and Republican leaders negotiated a compromise and Speaker Boehner should not walk away from it, putting middle-class families at risk of a thousand-dollar tax hike, just because a few angry Tea Partiers raised their voices to the Speaker.

Yes, the two parties negotiated a compromise in the Senate – at John Boehner’s request. And now he says no to that – Boehner is now demanding that everyone work on a year-long extension, instead of a two-month extension, Reid said that the Democrats would continue to work on just that, just as soon as the House approves this short-term measure and gives everyone time to work on a new agreement. What’s the damned problem here?

And Benen notes that asking that question is an effort by the Senate Democrats to “jam” House Republicans – as they passed a bill and left town, giving the House a choice between passing the Senate bill, or raising taxes on a hundred sixty million Americans and cutting off aid to the unemployed and all the rest. But Boehner has chosen suffering, as if suffering is the essential thing. Santorum would understand, as would Mel Gibson.

But a number of Senate Republicans are siding with Democrats here – telling their House Republican colleagues to cut the crap and just pass the damned extension. Not everyone get their jollies from massive suffering and pain – and that might include a whole lot of voters. House Republicans killing a bipartisan compromise on a middle-class tax cut, one that passed the Senate 89 to 10, six days before Christmas, just might be bad politics. Not everyone loves suffering and thinks it is essential – particularly at Christmas. No one watches Braveheart at Christmas time – they watch the movies where Scrooge learns better.

And Kevin Drum says the spectacle of President Obama practically having to beg Republicans to approve a tax cut beggars the imagination – so he turns to Greg Sargent, who explains things this way:

Conservatives have a variety of explanations for opposing the compromise. One is that it’s only two months. But as Ezra Klein and Steve Benen point out, they won’t agree to a clean year-long extension, which is why the shorter-term one had to be negotiated in the first place. Another claim is that the Senate deal isn’t really a compromise, as GOP Rep. Tom Cole put it. But Republicans got their number one priority – the Keystone XL pipeline – included in the deal, while Democrats dropped their number one demand, i.e., that the extension be paid for by a millionaire surtax. Senate Republicans overwhelmingly supported the deal. If this deal isn’t a compromise, then the word has lost all meaning for conservatives, which may be the real story here.

A third reason is that a two-month extension is bad politics for Republicans. On a conference call, House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy reportedly argued against the compromise partly because it would allow Obama to again browbeat Republicans into extending the tax cut during his State of the Union address in January.

Sargent is not impressed with their priorities, and Drum adds this:

In any case, my advice is the same as always: just pass the tax cut without paying for it. That’s both the best and the easiest option. You’ll be doing the country a favor and you’ll be home in time for the solstice.

But Brian Beutler reports the House Republicans decided to get clever:

After a much-longer-than-anticipated caucus meeting Monday night, House Republican leaders announced a plan to vote Tuesday to nix a broadly bipartisan Senate stopgap bill to extend the current payroll tax cut for two months. But they won’t be doing this with a standard up or down vote.

The development comes after House conservatives launched a full scale rebellion against a Senate bill negotiated by Majority Leader Harry Reid and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell that passed with an overwhelming 89 votes.

However House Republicans are aware of the political peril that will come with killing a bipartisan plan to extend the payroll tax cut – and they know they’ll likely be held responsible if the tax holiday expires. So they’re structuring the votes in a manner that’s designed to give their members cover from that charge and, perhaps, preserve their right to reconsider the Senate bill in the coming days.

Specifically, they’re not actually going to vote down the Senate bill directly. Instead they will vote on a single measure that rejects the Senate’s plan and simultaneously calls for a conference with Senate negotiators to iron out the (significant) differences between the two chambers’ plans.

The procedural details are at the link – if you want to know – but it comes down to this:

House GOP aides confidently predicted that their measure will pass Tuesday. That would leave Reid to decide whether to stick to his guns or to appoint negotiators to work through the holidays on a full-year plan to renew the payroll tax cut, extend unemployment benefits, and patch a Medicare reimbursement formula to make sure physicians don’t take a big pay cut on the first of the year. Reid has insisted he considers the matter closed and will leave Boehner holding the ball – giving him a choice between quelling the rebellion and passing the bipartisan Senate bill before January 1 or triggering a tax increase on middle class workers in a weak economy.

Republicans will hit back and call on Democrats to return to Washington to strike yet another compromise. Complicating that message for them? Many Republicans plan to leave town tomorrow after the close of votes.

And the nationwide suffering will follow – but suffering is good for you, as all Christians know.

But Brian Beutler also reports on the new civil war between House Republicans and their Senate counterparts:

In response, nearly a dozen House GOP freshmen convened a press conference Monday afternoon to chastise the Senate – including Senate Republicans – for passing a bill they regard as a non-starter.

“I don’t care about political implications,” said Rep. Tom Reed (R-NY). “I’ve said it once on the floor, I’ve said it to the public, I’ll say it again. I don’t care about my re-election effort.”

Rep. Steve Womack (R-AR) accused Senate Republicans who voted for the compromise legislation of setting aside the national interest out of a personal desire to see their families over the holidays.

“I didn’t see the high-fiving going on, but I did hear the tune ‘I’ll be home for Christmas’ coming out of that mix,” he said. “I personally think that that vote had a lot more to do with getting out of Washington and going back home.”

And there’s this:

Michael Steel, a spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner put the public rift in pragmatic terms. “Speaker Boehner and Senator McConnell have a very close working relationship,” he said. “That doesn’t necessarily mean that their respective caucuses see every issue the same way.”

No kidding! And Josh Marshall outlines the mess:

Holding up a payroll tax holiday deal will hurt the economy starting in January. In the meantime, it’s hurting Republicans a lot. The two month compromise negotiated by Mitch McConnell in the Senate was pretty weak as it is. But John Boehner couldn’t stand down a mutiny in his own ranks.

And that may be the real problem here, as Steve Kornacki explains in his item on the pointlessness of being a Republican House speaker:

The problem for Boehner, as has been amply demonstrated this year, is that he’s a speaker who lacks the muscle typically associated with his title. This really isn’t his fault. The GOP’s House membership can roughly be divided into two groups: 1) Conservative true believers (many of whom won their seats in 2010) who embody the Tea Party’s anti-Washington, anti-Obama, anti-compromise absolutism; and 2) conservatives who have some pragmatic instincts but who are terrified of acting on them in the Obama era, lest it prompt a primary challenge from a Tea Party purist.

Now consider what Boehner, an 11-term House incumbent who led the GOP in the lower chamber during the final few years of the Bush presidency, represents to the average Tea Party activist: the exact sort of entrenched D.C. insider who spent the Bush years signing off on W’s big government agenda and giving conservatism a bad name, thereby abetting the rise of Obama in 2008. He managed to secure the speaker’s gavel for the 112th Congress mainly by being in the right place at the right time, but he’s had to wield it with the knowledge that scores of his members (along with the conservative activists and media personalities who have credibility with the Tea Party base) are ready to punish him the minute he sells them out. Add in the presence of an ambitious No. 2 House GOP leader who isn’t very fond of Boehner and who enjoys far more trust from the Tea Party crowd, Eric Cantor, and it becomes clear that Boehner is essentially a speaker-in-name-only.

So we are where we are, with the Senate deal:

The deal could hardly have been described as a big win for either side. It was what it was: a way to prevent a tax increase on millions of middle class Americans that neither party wants to be blamed for.

Boehner was well aware of this. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell kept him in the loop as he negotiated with Majority Leader Harry Reid, with Boehner saying then: “If the Senate acts, I’m committed to bringing the House back – we can do it within 24 hours – to deal with whatever the Senate does.” But when McConnell and Reid struck their deal and the Senate approved it on Saturday, Boehner took part in a conference call with the House’s GOP members. According to numerous reports, he started out by calling it a “good” deal and expressing his support. But then Cantor and his allies trashed it, and so did numerous other members on the call.

A strong speaker, one who isn’t constantly on guard against potential mutinies, might have laid down the law at this point and leaned on his leadership team to twist arms and bring the membership into line. But Boehner was in no position to do that, and he hasn’t been all year.

So that was that. Boehner changed his tune. He caved, even if he says he never promised anyone anything, really, to which Kornacki says this:

Believe that if you want, but this sure feels like only the latest episode in which Boehner wanted to protect his party from inflicting political damage on itself but had no standing to do so.

And then there’s Jim Newell at Gawker with this:

We’ve been trying something different, as Congress has been pretending to nearly shut down the government or arbitrarily destroy the global economic system for the fourth time this year: Not biting! They’ll always reach an agreement, after acting out a months-long scripted fight that we’ve seen before. But now we’re at the stage when children-lawmakers begin channeling action movies for inspiration, so we’ll take that as our cue.

Yes, this time around it’s Braveheart:

“I’ve got a flight out of [Georgia] in about two hours. We’re all coming back, that’s what everybody told Speaker Boehner on the conference call Saturday when we heard about this fiasco of a two-month extension voted on by the Senate,” Gingrey said. “We were literally shocked.”

“Out of 75 responses, there may have been one person that thought it was OK that we would put the fight off until two months from now,” he continued. “Everybody else said, ‘Look, this is a Braveheart moment.’ You, Mr. Speaker, are our William Wallace. Let’s rush to the fight. Get us back to Washington, let’s get to our work and we’re doing that.”

That’s it? Jim Newell adds this:

And the rest of this fight, indeed, should play out exactly as Braveheart did: William Boehner Wallace will rally his troops with an invigorating speech before heading into the final battle, in which the House and Senate reject each others’ bills and choose to mesh them in conference committee where they’ll tweak a few pay-fors.

Well, it will come down to that – with no blood and gore shown in extended close-up full-color wide-screen excruciating detail. This is just legislation. But damn – someone actually took that bloodthirsty nasty little man, Mel Gibson, with his fascination with martyrdom and intense pain, seriously. Maybe they should have seen him in person.

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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