Crisis in Congress – Who Will Be the Next House Speaker?

Kevin McCarthyThis week Republican wunderkind Kevin McCarthy abruptly withdrew from the race for House Speaker just before the vote was to be taken.

His boast on Fox News about the Republicans putting together the special committee on Benghazi to discredit Hillary Clinton seems to have done him in. Opposition to his comments by Republican leaders was swift and severe.

McCarthy would need to receive a majority of 218 votes in the House to be elected as Speaker. The Democrats can all be counted on to cast their votes for Nancy Pelosi, the House Minority Leader. With 247 Republicans in the House, that leaves a margin of less than 30 dissenting votes on the Republican side to achieve a majority. (Remember that John Boehner narrowly survived a leadership vote earlier this year when 25 fellow House Republicans voted against him.)

Daniel WebeterBut on Wednesday the House Freedom Caucus (with appx. 40 members) announced that it was backing Daniel Webster for speaker, with one of its members, Rep. Paul Labrador, informing CNN that the group would be voting as a block for their candidate instead of for McCarthy. Sensing that he could not unify the party behind him, McCarthy quickly withdrew his name.

But there is more to the story than that. It is possible that McCarthy was blackmailed into withdrawing from the race.

The previous day (Oct. 6) Rep. Walter Jones of N. Carolina sent a letter to the Republican Conference Chairman

asking that any candidate for Speaker of the House, majority leader and majority whip withdraw himself from the leadership election if there are any misdeeds he has committed since joining Congress that will embarrass himself, the Republican Conference, and the House of Representatives if they become public.

Then, just after 8 am on Thursday morning (the morning of the vote) McCarthy received an email from Steve Baer, a well-known conservative GOP donor with the subject line: “Kevin, why not resign like Bob Livingston?” (a reference to the Republican candidate who was set to replace Newt Gingrich as House Speaker in Jan 1999 until it was revealed that he was having an extra-marital affair; he resigned from Congress a few months later). The email contained a series of links to stories alleging that McCarthy was having an affair with Rep. Renee Ellmers of N. Carolina, and was copied to 91 influential conservatives both in and outside Congress.

Although both Ellmers and McCarthy have stated that these accusations are unfounded, it may nevertheless explain McCarthy’s abrupt withdrawal from the Speaker’s race without further explanation.

YoungGuns_Cover_DV_20100831125157Until McCarthy’s now infamous statement on Fox News, he was seen as one of the fast-rising stars within the Republican Party. He was one of the celebrated “Young Guns” who, along with Eric Cantor and Paul Ryan in the book they co-authored in 2010, became the standard-bearers of a new generation of conservative Republican leaders.

McCarthy rose rapidly through the ranks of party leadership. He was first elected to the House of Representatives in 2006, served as Republican Chief Deputy Whip from 2009 to 2011, then as House Majority Whip from 2011 to 2014.

Eric Cantor became House Majority Leader in 2011, but lost his seat in 2014 to a more radical Tea Party ‘outlier’ in the primaries who then replaced him in the House. McCarthy took over Cantor’s vacated #2 position as House Majority Leader in August 2014, and was until this week poised to assume the top position as Speaker of the House.

But much like Cantor, McCarthy has had his political future torpedoed by a discontented, vocal, and more radically conservative faction within his own party. It was the House Freedom Caucus specifically that took the lead in orchestrating McCarthy’s leadership demise.

Capitol Hill Re-Groups One Day After Surprise In Speaker's RaceMembers of Congress have historically divided into different party caucus groups to work together in promoting specific agendas. In 1973 the Republican Study Committee was formed as part of a rising conservative movement within the Republican Party to oppose the moderate Republicans who dominated the House at that time.

With the Republican Party’s swing to the right in recent years, more than three-quarters of House Republicans (some 170 members) now belong to the RSC, far outstripping the less than 50 House Republicans belonging to the moderate Main Street Partnership.

But many of the recently elected House members (largely from the Tea Party faction) have come to see the RSC as not conservative enough for their taste. After many months of planning, in January of this year they formed a splinter group called the House Freedom Caucus to pursue a decidedly right-wing agenda.

The HFC keeps its membership list secret, but is known to number around 40 members. With such a large voting block, they exert considerable weight, and can keep any proposed legislation in the House that does not have Democratic support from passing. A month after its formation, members of the HFC pushed the House majority close to a partial government shutdown in opposing President Obama’s executive order on immigration.

An angry John Boehner struck back, relieving some HFC members of their House duties. This led to near open warfare between the HFC and Speaker. Over the summer one of the affected HFC members, Rep. Mark Meadows of N. Carolina, filed a motion to oust Boehner from the speaker’s chair. Boehner ended up announcing his resignation before the motion could be voted on.

Now that the House Freedom Caucus has achieved Boehner’s resignation, and has turned against Kevin McCarthy as the front runner to replace him, Republicans are scrambling for a new candidate who can receive the required majority – which means satisfying both the conservative and extreme right-wing factions within the party. With the House Freedom Caucus holding the decisive block of votes, that appears to be a near impossibility.

Paul_RyanSome party conservatives have pleaded with Paul Ryan, the remaining “Young Gun,” to stand for nomination, but he has steadfastly refused. He knows that the speaker will face enormous pressures in the weeks to come. As Alexander Bolton noted this week in The Hill,

Congress has less than a month to raise the nation’s debt limit and only two months to find a deal to avoid a government shutdown.

If the new speaker cooperates with Democrats or the President to avoid a shutdown, he will face the wrath of House ultra-conservatives who will likely demand his immediate resignation. And if he allows a government shutdown to take place, he and other Republicans may incur the wrath of the entire nation. Either way, such a step could easily ruin Paul Ryan’s political career.

The House Freedom Caucus is playing a strong hand. On Thursday Politico published a “questionnaire” distributed by the HFC that seeks a commitment from any new speaker that any increases in the debt ceiling would be tied to cuts to Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. Cutting these benefits is viewed negatively by the public at large and even by some Republicans. But so would be refusing to increase the debt ceiling and causing America to default on its debts.

The questionnaire also asks,

Would you ensure that House-passed appropriations bills do not contain funding for Planned Parenthood, unconstitutional amnesty, the Iran deal and Obamacare?

In other words, it asks the House Speaker to commit to not funding the government unless Obamacare, Planned Parenthood, Obama’s immigration orders and the Iran deal are all defunded in the process. As Judd Legum notes in an article in ThinkProgress,

This is essentially the Ted Cruz strategy which prompted at 16-day shutdown in 2013. This would now be enshrined as the official policy of the Speaker Of The House.

It would be dangerous for any untested Speaker to shepherd such radical legislation through the House. There is sure to be an enormous backlash as well as some unforeseen casualties.

But right now the House Freedom Caucus holds all the cards. And it will be difficult to elect a new speaker without their cooperation.

Interesting – and perilous – times lie ahead.

Photo credits: Scott Applewhite/AP; Andrew Harnik/AP; Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Keystone XL Pipeline Approved – Or Maybe Not

Keystone Pipeline OklahomaBoth the U.S. House and Senate have now approved construction of the Keystone XL pipeline. Once the two versions of the bill go through a brief reconciliation process the finalized bill will be sent to the President for his signature. He must decide within ten days whether to sign it into law or veto it.

The House with its increased Republican majority took up the Keystone bill as its first item of major business. House Resolution 3 was introduced on Jan 6, 2015 and passed on Jan 9.

The Republican-led Senate then took up the bill as its first item of business and, after lengthy debate and some amendments, passed its version of the bill on Jan 29.

Sen. John Barrasso (photo courtesy U.S. Senate - click to enlargMembers supporting the Keystone XL bill argued that the pipeline is vitally important to the U.S. economy, saying it would add thousands of new jobs. For example, Sen. John Barrasso on Wyoming claimed on Meet the Press on Jan. 4 that, “[Obama’s] own State Department said it’s 42,000 new jobs.”

The only problem is, as Emily Atkin of ThinkProgress has pointed out,

The State Department did not say the Keystone XL pipeline would create 42,000 new jobs. Instead, it said the project would “support” 42,000 direct, indirect and induced jobs, 99 percent of which would be temporary, not lasting more than the two years it would take to construct. Once the project is completed, the State Department estimates that the pipeline would only create 35 full-time jobs.

These 35 jobs would be all that is needed for “routine inspections, maintenance and repair.”

construction of the gas pipelineSo how many actual short-term construction jobs (rather than secondary spin-off jobs) would be generated by this project? TransCanada, the Canadian company behind the project that would be shipping the oil through the U.S., has estimated that

the pipeline will create no more than 2,500 to 4,650 temporary direct construction jobs for two years,

or an average of 1,950 jobs each year.

TransCanada has also stated that the total cost over the two years of construction has now gone up from $5.4 billion to an estimated be $8 billion. That’s a lot of money for relatively few jobs. You really have to ask yourself if that is money well spent.

Of course, once the pipeline is operational it will send up to 830,000 barrels of Canadian heavy (tar sands) oil through the U.S. per day to Gulf Coast refineries. That is bound to help the U.S. economy by alleviating dependency on foreign oil imports. Right? Except that this refined product is primarily destined for export to other countries. Don’t look for it to flood American markets and reduce the price of gas at the pumps.

As President Barack Obama stated at his 2014 year-end press conference,

At issue in Keystone is not American oil. It is Canadian oil that is drawn out of the tar sands in Canada. That oil currently is being shipped out through rail or trucks and it would save Canadian oil companies and the Canadian oil industry an enormous amount of money if they could simply pipe it through the United States and all the way down to the Gulf. Once that oil gets to [the] Gulf, it is then entering into the world market and it would be sold all around the world.

CO2In the meantime, mining (yes mining) and liquefying this tar sands oil produces significantly more hydrocarbon emissions than conventional crude oils and is more damaging to the environment.

A study by the Stockholm Environmental Institute concluded that the pipeline would increase global greenhouse gas emissions by as much as 121 million tons of carbon dioxide a year. That is four times the amount originally estimated by the U.S. State Department in its assessment of the environmental impact of the pipeline. As Adam Howard reported for MSNBC,

The results could have a traumatic effect on the planet’s atmosphere, which is already reeling from the prolonged effects of climate change.

Lac-Megantic-Oil-FireThe kind of oil to be shipped through the pipeline is also much more toxic, explosive (recall the catastrophic explosion in Lac-Mégantic, Québec in 2013, and harder to clean up than conventional oil when spilled. As Emily Atken explains,

cold lake tar sands bitumen spill_0When it spills, tar sands oil does not float on top of water like conventional crude. Instead, … it gradually sinks to the bottom. … This makes normal clean-up techniques and equipment of little use.

The XL pipeline is certain to provide increased profits for a few major oil producers, but will have little overall impact on job creation or boosting the American economy. Instead, it will create a greater hazard to the environment and to public safety. The bottom line: it is an ill-conceived, politically motivated, and environmentally hazardous piece of legislation that deserves to die.

President Obama has said that he will veto this bill when it comes across his desk. Let us hope that he is true to his word.

Image credits:Sue Ogrocki/AP; Sustainability Ninja

Republican Party Splintering?

Is there a crack developing in the Republican block? Do I detect signs of it splintering?

The recent Republican primaries provide some fascinating insights into dissent within the Republican ranks. The Tea Party was greatly emboldened when their relatively unknown candidate defeated the high-profile “establishment” candidate, Eric Cantor, in the recent Virginia primary. Then this week the Tea party was sent reeling by the come-from-behind win of the establishment candidate Thad Cochran over the anointed Tea Party candidate in Mississippi.

mcdanielIn his rousing non-concession speech, Chris McDaniel distanced himself from the current Republican Party, saying.

The party I was born with, the party I joined when I was 13 years old, was the party of a former actor from California named Ronald Reagan. … That’s the party I joined. That’s the party I’ve always been a part of.

He then went on to say about the majority who voted for his establishment opponent, “This is not the party of Reagan,” and added,

there are millions of people who feel like strangers in their own party.”

His words express the sentiment of many.

The animosity between Tea Party/Libertarian Republicans and mainstream conservative (or “establishment”) Republicans has been growing throughout the primary season. The Center for Public Integrity documented that in the first two months of this year

conservative groups spent more than $2.3 million on negative ads targeting Republican candidates.

And it adds,

That’s more than the $2.1 million conservative groups spent overtly advocating against the election of Democratic candidates.

Meanwhile, they report, liberal political groups didn’t spend a dime opposing Democratic candidates.

The struggle for dominance in (and thus control of) the Republican Party seems to have come down to a battle between the purists and the pragmatists. As McDaniel complained in denouncing the establishment element within his party,

So much for principle. I guess they can take some consolation in the fact that they did something tonight, by once again compromising, by once again reaching across the aisle, by once again abandoning the conservative movement.

The basic problem with ideological purists is that they treat compromise as a moral evil. One cannot trust or work with those who view compromise as a pragmatic necessity. To reach across the aisle is to abandon one’s purist convictions. One is either with you or against you – an ally or an opponent.

As disagreement with the establishment wing of the Republican Party intensifies, some of the purists feel they have no choice but to renounce their ties with this reprobate majority. Talk of third party candidacies in the Fall 2014 elections continues to surface.

palinThis week Sarah Palin appeared on Hannity and suggested that she might consider joining a third party saying,

If Republicans are going to act like Democrats, then what’s the use in getting all gung ho about getting in there? [that is, getting them elected to Congress].

When far-right conservatives feel they cannot support establishment conservatives – or decide to openly campaign against them – it spells trouble for the Republican Party as a whole. A fragmented party filled with rancorous infighting will be in a poor position to defeat the Democratic candidates in the upcoming election.

 

Photo credit: AP

6 Takeaways from Eric Cantor’s Primary Defeat

CantorIn a stunning upset, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor lost to a Tea Party backed opponent in Virginia’s primary elections on Tuesday. Cantor was the second highest-ranking Republican in the House of Representatives, and broadly expected to succeed John Boehner as the next Speaker of the House. He was one of the Republican Party’s celebrated “Young Guns” who were expected to rejuvenate the party, and had rapidly risen through the party ranks since his election to the House in 2001.

Cantor’s seat was generally regarded as safe, yet he was defeated by Dave Brat, an obscure economics professor from a small college in his district who had spent only $200,000 on his campaign. Cantor, on the other hand, had poured over $ 5 million into his own campaign. Yet Cantor lost by a whopping 11% on election night (44.5% to 55.5%).

So what does it all mean? Here are 6 takeaways from the election primary:

1. Impact of low voter turnout

Low voter turnout can dramatically skew election results. Over 220,000 people voted in this district’s 2012 election, but only about 65,000 bothered to vote in this year’s Republican primary. Cantor’s own internal poll showed him leading his opponent by 34 points just 2 weeks ago. But as Ezra Klein noted soon after the election results were announced,

“Republicans” are not the same as “Republican primary voters.” … It’s possible and even likely that the vast majority of Republicans in Virginia’s 7th District liked Cantor just fine. But primaries only count the people who come out to vote.

2. Appealing to the base

Cantor handily won over his opponents in previous elections, but redistricting in 2010 made his suburban Richmond district much more conservative by adding in other rural areas that he didn’t previously represent. Maintaining support in Richmond alone was no longer enough. This time around, his opponent successfully appealed to the strongly conservative rural Christian base in his district. He painted Cantor as a Washington insider who spent more time greasing the wheels of Congress than representing his home district.

As David Wasserman, a political analyst at the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, notes,

Mr. Cantor, who dreamed of becoming the first Jewish speaker of the House, was culturally out of step with a redrawn district that was more rural, more gun-oriented and more conservative.

3. Defining your opponent

Dave BratIn his campaign against Cantor, Dave Brat capitalized on conservative opposition to immigration reform. He labeled Cantor as “The number one Republican supporter of [immigration] amnesty” even though Cantor, along with other House Republicans, had only cautiously supported a negotiated compromise on immigration.

Brat was also quite savvy in his use of the media. He received support from conservative radio hosts Laura Ingraham and Mark Levin who helped to spread his charges against Cantor and also received extensive online coverage from Breitbart and the Drudge Report. In the closing days of the campaign Cantor tried to tack back against support for immigration reform, but it was too late.

4. Taking the populist “high road”

Brat presented himself as a populist candidate and labeled Cantor as a politician who was more committed to Wall Street than Main Street. Brat claimed,

“I am running against Cantor because he does not represent the citizens of the 7th District, but rather large corporations seeking insider deals, crony bailouts and a constant supply of low-wage workers.”

Cantor, who in his leadership position in the House has served on the House’s Financial Services, International Relations and Ways and Means Committees and was a major fundraiser for the Republican party, could not shake the accusation that he was an establishment insider who cared more about party issues than those of his home constituents. The tactic worked.

5. Adjustments to House leadership

Earlier today Eric Cantor announced that he will be stepping down as House Majority Leader at the end of July. Within hours of his defeat, Republican House members had already begun jockeying to fill his place. The leading candidate to replace him as Majority Leader is Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-CA). the third highest ranking member of the House. He is being challenged by Pete Sessions (R-TX) the chairman of the House Rules Committee and a former GOP campaign chief. Others have their eye on McCarthy’s position and are lining up to take his place it if becomes vacant.

One may expect House Republicans to be somewhat preoccupied for the next while as they frantically work behind the scenes to reposition themselves within the political hierarchy. They may have little inclination or energy to address other matters as they do so.

6. Redefining the playing field

Some are saying that Cantor’s defeat at the hands of an unknown populist Tea Party candidate sends a strong message to other Republicans seeking reelection this fall. They had better watch their backs.

As Katherine Miller of Buzzfeed notes,

Every Republican who wants to keep his or her seat … will likely study the results of Tuesday’s election.

The Tea Party, which a few weeks ago seemed to be loosing out to more establishment candidates in the primaries, is feeling itself empowered by Tuesday’s election results. This fundamentally changes the political ground game. Will Republican candidates find it necessary to tack to the right to keep the support of their conservative base (as Cantor tried unsuccessfully to do)? And will Democrats attempt to benefit from undecided voters (some 40% of the electorate) who prefer more centrist policies?

It is shaping up to be an interesting fall race.

Photo credit: JEWEL SAMAD/AFP

The Plot to Take America Hostage

End of the Hostage Drama

House voteAmerica and the world are breathing a collective sign of relief now that the United States has narrowly averted what could have become a cataclysmic financial catastrophe. The very day that the government was due to run out of money, the US Senate passed a bill to raise the debt ceiling. By late evening the deeply divided House of Representatives had passed the bill as well, and President Obama signed it into law shortly after midnight.

If America had defaulted on its debt obligations US credit ratings would have tumbled, interest rates would have soared, the US dollar would have fallen, banking credit would have frozen up, banks would have refused to issue new loans, businesses would have cut expansion and laid off workers, homeowners would have seen their mortgage rates soar, and consumer purchases would have dropped off drastically. In short, both the American and global economies would have been thrown into a severe depression exceeding even that of the 2008 financial meltdown.

Now that the crisis has been averted, it is possible to look back and piece together the sequence of events that that led up to this near disaster. It began when Congress was unable to pass a necessary Continuing Resolution [CR] to authorize expenditures for the new fiscal year. With no approved discretionary funding, all non-essential government services were forced to shut down on October 1.

obamacare-tea-party-rally-sept-2013Both houses of Congress worked to promote their own versions of a CR to keep the government functioning. But as I reported in an earlier blog, it soon became obvious that the government shutdown was not really about funding the government. It was solely about the funding of the Affordable Care Act (often referred to as “Obamacare). As stated in that blog,

The facts speak for themselves: Before the shutdown, the House passed a CR to fund government operations and attached an amendment to defund Obamacare. Then the Senate stripped off the defunding provision and passed the CR without any further changes. The House submitted the same CR to the Senate with an amendment to delay Obamacare for a year. Again the Senate stripped off the amendment and passed the straight CR. Both Houses have passed the identical CR twice; they only disagree about Obamacare.

This legislative stand-off continued for another two weeks until a much larger issue came to the fore: the debt ceiling. The United States has an odd funding arrangement in which Congress must first approve expenditures for the coming year (pass a budget or, failing that, a Continuing Resolution to continue making appropriations). Then later it must pass a second resolution enabling the government to actually pay for the bills that have been incurred. This becomes important if the government is running a deficit, and paying its bills in full would add to the national debt.

Historically, this second vote has been a straight housekeeping measure. But in recent years it has become a political weapon used by opposition parties to try and force the government to accept new policy changes in return for the authority to pay its bills.

Furloughed federal workers join a rally with Congressional Progressive Caucus to demand a vote to end the government shutdown, outside the U.S. Capitol in WashingtonThe past week Republicans in both houses of Congress tried to use the debt ceiling as a weapon to force the President to drop Obamacare. The President replied that he was not going to negotiate with “hostage takers,” and that Congress had a responsibility to pay for the bills it had already incurred.

If Congress wanted to debate new funding measures, the President was open to that. But the Affordable Care Act was the law, passed by an act of Congress in 2010, upheld by the Supreme Court, and fought over in the 2012 presidential election – receiving the broadest referendum possible. The Republicans has lost that election. The President received a sizeable majority, and the signature piece of legislation from his first term of office – the Affordable Care Act – was thereby reaffirmed.

But a strongly organized opposition refused to concede the issue. Led by Tea Party Republicans in both the House and Senate, they took the country to the brink of default in insisting that Obamacare be sacrificed in exchange for America remaining financially solvent.

gallup1

Polls showed public opinion solidly turning against the Republicans over this maneuver. Seasoned Republicans in the Senate, fearful of their own ability to be re-elected, opened last-minute negotiations with Democrats to resolve the issue. They put together a bi-partisan proposal that was passed on the morning of the final day that the government remained solvent. The bill had more difficulty getting through the House with its Republican majority, but late in the evening it too was passed. The Senate vote was 81-18 in favor, while the House vote was 285-144.

Those Behind the Plot

Most of the media coverage of this crisis focused on the members of Congress and their actions. But behind the scenes there were other actors orchestrating the drama as it unfolded. As The New York Times reported in a major article on October 5, the federal budget crisis was many months in the planning.

Edwin_Meese IIIShortly after President Obama started his second term, a loose-knit coalition of conservative activists led by former Attorney General Edwin Meese III gathered in the capital to plot strategy. …

Out of that session, held one morning in a location the members insist on keeping secret, came a little-noticed  “blueprint to defunding Obamacare” signed by Mr. Meese and leaders of more than three dozen conservative groups.

It articulated a take-no-prisoners legislative strategy that had long percolated in conservative circles: that Republicans could derail the health care overhaul if conservative lawmakers were willing to push fellow Republicans — including their cautious leaders — into cutting off financing for the entire federal government.

You can view the “Blueprint to Defunding Obamacare” here.

Signatories to the Blueprint include Edwin Meese III (former Attorney General to Ronald Reagan), Chris Chocola (President, Club for Growth), Jenny Beth Martin (Co-founder, Tea Party Patriots), Matt Kibbe (President, FreedomWorks), Mike Needham (CEO, Heritage Action for America), and David Bossie (President, Citizens United).

The Tea Party Patriots, Americans for Prosperity, FreedomWorks, the Club for Growth, and Heritage Action for America all aggressively got behind the effort to defund the Affordable Care Act. The Times article also reports that

The billionaire Koch brothers, Charles and David, have been deeply involved with financing the overall effort. A group linked to the Kochs, Freedom Partners Chamber of Commerce, disbursed more than $200 million last year to nonprofit organizations involved in the fight.

The Bill Moyers website contains an interactive page profiling 10 of the main actors operating behind the scenes in this effort to nullify the Affordable Care Act as well as 9 of their willing agents (and one target) in Congress.  It is well worth a visit.

Members of Congress were faced with a highly orchestrated campaign led by powerful political back-room figures and financed to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars to overturn the Affordable Care Act. Their tactics were aggressive. Their influence was extensive. And their pressure tactics were powerful.

More importantly, their ambition was seemingly without bounds – even to the point of taking America to the brink of economic collapse in pursuit of their single-minded goal.

When such powerful people seek to manipulate Congress, control its legislature, overturn its laws, and impose their will on the country, we are in a very dangerous situation. This orchestrated effort comes very close to amounting to an attempted coup. And if America had defaulted on its debts due to their influence, they would arguably have been guilty of no less a crime than treason.

Democracy is a fragile thing. Perpetual vigilance is required to defend it. Otherwise, powerful interests will not hesitate to subvert it, manipulate it, and control it to suit their own purposes.

America averted a catastrophe at the very last moment this past week. But it must not let down its guard. It must remain vigilant against all those who threaten it – especially those who threaten it from within.

Image credits: CSPAN; Reuters

Hostage Negotiations

The shutdown of government services in the United States is now well into its second week due to a continuing impasse between Republicans and Democrats over the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare). If the two parties cannot come together within the next seven days to raise the debt ceiling, America will face a catastrophic default on its national debt. So far, there has been little movement toward a resolution. Both sides have dug in their heels, and the public is getting worried.

Obama-GalesburgLast Friday President Obama clearly stated that he would not negotiate with Republicans to end the budget standoff “with a gun held to the head of the American people.”  He made a similar statement on Wednesday in a meeting with House Democrats saying he was willing to negotiate with Republicans but “not with a gun at my head.”

20100629_johnboehner_250x375Republican House Speaker John Boehner has pounced on these statements repeatedly stating to the media simply that Obama “will not negotiate.”

On Wednesday the President tried to clarify his position by opening an hour-long press conference with the following extended statement:

This morning I had a chance to speak with Speaker Boehner. And I told him what I’ve been saying publicly, that I am happy to talk with him and other Republicans about anything – not just issues I think are important but also issues that they think are important. But I also told him that having such a conversation, talks, negotiations shouldn’t require hanging the threats of a government shutdown or economic chaos over the heads of the American people.

Hours later, Boehner held his own news conference where he stated,

What the president said today was, if there is unconditional surrender by Republicans, he’ll sit down and talk to us.

In a nutshell, the situation boils down to this:

Obama: “Drop the gun, and we’ll talk.”

Boehner: “I’m not lowering my weapon.”

swat3_sI have been thinking quite a bit in recent days about this “hostage” metaphor. If we were describing a similar hostage incident on our city streets, the police would have been summoned long ago, professional negotiators would be talking down the perpetrator, and the SWAT team would be in place to take lethal action if needed. Unfortunately, in American politics, there is no outside authority to intervene. There is no such police force, and there is no SWAT team.

De-escalating the Crisis

But there is the art of negotiation. Conservative commentator Jennifer Rubin observes the basic rule used by every SWAT team in hostage situations: “You might not give the hostage taker what he wants, but you start talking and may give him something to prevent him from doing great damage.”

Many people have called on President Obama to “throw Boehner a bone” of some kind to keep negotiations from breaking off completely. Perhaps this is that Obama was doing in his news conference when he announced,

I am happy to talk with [Boehner] and other Republicans about anything – not just issues I think are important but also issues that they think are important.

And it appears that the Republicans have taken hold of this offer. Many commentators have noted how

The GOP argument has shifted over the last week or so from seeking to roll back the president’s healthcare reform law in the fiscal showdown to seeking broader changes to the tax code and entitlement programs.

Many long-time Republican members of the House have been looking for a suitable exit strategy. John Boehner had originally tried to steer the Republican members of the House away from a confrontation over Obamacare, preferring to use the debt ceiling fight to push for further spending cuts. But he was overruled by the Tea Party caucus who insisted on following the strategy laid out by their de facto leader, Senator Ted Cruz.

Ted CruzCruz has since been strongly castigated by other Republican members for overreaching his position and making grand promises that he could not keep. Rep. Peter King [R-NY] stated that he can “never forgive Ted Cruz,” and other Republicans have even circulated negative talking points against Cruz to prominent media personalities.

Others have expressed their disappointment with John Boehner who caved to the Tea party demands, demonstrating that even he finds himself being held hostage to Tea Party tactics.

cartoon Obama calls Boehner

Many Republican House members have expressed their frustration with having been pressured to join the Tea Party’s all-or-nothing assault on Obamacare. Charlie Dent [R-Pa] for one has gone on record as saying that strategy championed by Ted Cruz and a host of Tea Party congressmen has “failed miserably.”

But Tea Party members – and their outside funders and agitators – are not willing to back down. Robert Schlesinger of U.S. News and World Report states that

Heritage Action CEO Michael Needham told reporters Tuesday morning that grassroots conservatives will accept neither a pivot away from the issue in an effort to resolve the deadlock nor a short-term reopening of the government that doesn’t defund the law.

Finding an Exit Strategy

Is there any way out of this morass? Can House Republicans rally around a strategy that will enable them to emerge from this standoff with a win of some sort? Enter Paul Ryan, the House Budget Committee Chairman, who suddenly stepped forward this week to chart a new course for the House Republicans. Ryan had been keeping a low profile throughout the entire Obamacare standoff and subsequent government shutdown, letting others take center stage instead.

Paul-ryan2Then the day after President Obama announced that he would be willing to agree to a short-term extension of the debt ceiling if it were a “clean” extension (that is, without other conditions), Ryan stepped forward with a detailed plan reported in an op-ed in Wednesday’s Wall Street Journal saying “We’re ready to negotiate.”

Interestingly, his proposals do not mention Obamacare at all, focusing instead on “common-sense reforms of the country’s entitlements and tax code.” Today, Ryan headed to the White House for a meeting with the President along with 17 other Republican House members.

Many non-Tea Party Republican House members greeted Ryan’s entry into the fray with relief. “There’s nobody in the caucus that commands the respect that Paul does,” said one House Republican. Rep. Bill Nuizenga [R-MI] is quoted as saying, “The moderates trust him, they might not always like what he has to say but they trust him.”

The Tea Party and their  backers, on the other hand, are outraged. Tom Kludt at Talking Points Memo points out that

Right-wing groups such as the Senate Conservatives Fund, Heritage Action, and RedState.com immediately lashed out at Ryan for failing to include the death of Obamacare in his demands in exchange for not intentionally crashing the global economy.

They were joined by Amanda Carpenter, spokeswoman for Senator Ted Cruz, Ben Shapiro, editor-at-large at the right-wing Breitbart.com, and a long list of others.

But the popular base the Tea Party once enjoyed is now waning. As Fox News contributor Leslie Marshall noted in a strongly worded essay on Wednesday,

The Tea Party’s influence and following among the American population has plunged to the lowest point since it’s inception. Less than one in four Americans now back the Tea Party, according to a recent Gallup poll. And in that same poll, those who hate the Tea Party and oppose its tactics have greatly risen in number.

She continues,

If you break down the numbers, it’s perplexing why any Republican would forge ahead with the tea party’s shutdown. First: poll after poll shows the American people do not want this shutdown. Further, they do not want this shutdown over Obamacare. The polls also show Americans dislike a government shutdown more than they dislike Obamacare. Polls show the American people blame Republicans; even other Republicans!

The solution, in her view, is for the Republican Party to completely disassociate itself from the Tea Party and vice versa. “If you call yourself a party,” she says, then “become a party.”

It is time for the Republicans to reexamine what their party stands for.  They are fast losing credibility with the public over this self-imposed budgetary crisis and the extreme unproductive positions taken so far. If they do not change course they, like the Tea Party they are currently beholding to, will speak only for a radical ostracized minority. Conservatism has a place in American politics. Radicalism does not.

In the late 1960s the Democrats followed an idealistic presidential candidate, Hubert Humphrey, who advocated progressive policy positions that the American public could not broadly endorse. The Party appeared to have capitulated to a radicalized core, and people abandoned it in droves. It took a lot of soul-searching, but eventually the Democrats reinvented themselves, under a more moderate banner of Clinton economics.

Republicans need to learn from that example. It may be a painful process – severing limbs (or removing cancerous growths) always is. But if the Party is to survive, it must be done.

There is more than one hostage in this drama.

 

Credits: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images; AP;  Senate TV/AP; Wasserman/Tribune Content Agency; Gage Skidmore/Flickr

 

Raising the Stakes

Well, it happened! The United States government went into official shutdown mode on October 1 when Congress was unable to pass a Continuing Resolution [CR] authorizing expenditures for the current fiscal year. Non-discretionary spending (e.g. Medicare and military salaries) continues on as usual, but all discretionary funding that must be approved by Congress has now come to a halt.

government-shutdown

Approximately 800,000 federal employees have been laid off across the nation. Veterans’ affairs, national parks, environmental protection, and a host of other services have been shut down. Many states are seeing services in their areas directly impacted. Civilian employees providing support services in the military have been sent home.

No new government contracts (including military contracts) can be awarded, nor can funding continue on existing projects. Soon hundreds of thousands of workers on these contracts will be laid off as well. It is taking a while, but the ripple effects of the shutdown are starting to be felt.

Since October 1, there has been little progress within Congress to resolve this stalemate. Instead, both sides seem to be maneuvering toward combining the CR for government funding with the debt ceiling negotiations that will need to be resolved in 2 week’s time.

If tough concessions are to be made, it will be seen as a sign of weakness to cave in early. The strategy is to go right up to the brink and pull back ONLY when there is no other alternative. Then one can’t be blamed for doing the only sane thing possible.

Ted CruzAt least, that is how it goes in theory. With a core cadre of radical Tea Partiers who seem to believe there would be no serious consequences to exceeding the debt ceiling (Ted Cruz in one of them), this strategy doesn’t apply since, for them, going over the brink merely strengthens their hand.

If the other side believes the Tea Party is actually crazy enough to take the U.S. into financial insolvency, they may blink first to avoid the disaster. That in itself is a strategy in this dangerous game of chicken. Will they actually do it? Or do they just want us to think they will? That is the great uncertainty.

One thing has become very clear in the past week, however. The present shutdown is NOT about funding the government. It is solely about Obamacare.

Obamacare brochureThe facts speak for themselves: Before the shutdown, the House passed a CR to fund government operations and attached an amendment to defund Obamacare. Then the Senate stripped off the defunding provision and passed the CR without any further changes. The House then submitted the same CR to the Senate with an amendment to delay Obamacare for a year. Again the Senate stripped off the amendment and passed the straight CR. Both Houses have passed the identical CR twice; they only disagree about Obamacare. If the issue of Obamacare could be split off into separate negotiations, the CR would pass and the shutdown could be ended immediately.

But, of course, that is not going to happen. If the issue of Obamacare were treated separately, Republicans would be back to the same situation as before where the House passed resolutions to defeat, amend, or delay provisions of the Affordable Care Act some 42 times, but with the Senate rejecting these moves every time.

The shutdown is the only leverage the Republican led House has now to get their way – that, and the debt ceiling in 2 week’s time. Those are their only bargaining chips, and they are not about to let them go.

However, both the Democrats in the Senate and President Obama have stated clearly and forcefully that they will not negotiate with a gun to their heads. If they did, one can imagine what a dangerous precedent it would set for the future. So here we sit, under the sword of Damocles, waiting to see whether or not the thread will snap.

Who’s in Charge?

Tea Party PoliticsThe Tea Party is definitely calling the shots on this one. Many Republican House members have cowered to Tea Party demands, fearful of being primaried out of their seats in the next election. A small minority has recently tried to rally resistance to the Tea Partiers, but without success.

House Speaker John Boehner is well aware that he can’t summon a Republican majority in the House without Tea Party support. He is loath to suspend the informal Hastert Rule that will not allow any bill to come to the floor of the House that does not have a majority in favor of its passage. The best estimate is that there are some 30 to 40 strict hardline ideologue Tea Party members of the House who will reject any compromise that Boehner might put forward to resolve the current legislative impasse. Some conservative critics such as Charles Krauthammer have dubbed them the GOP’s “suicide caucus.”

Recent support for Tea Party initiatives has recently included up to 80 Republican House members.  We have already seen how they are willing to confer instead with Ted Cruz in the Senate and follow his advice rather than Boehner’s. From all appearances, the House leader is finding himself quite unable to rein in their demands.

How are these events being perceived in the press? A sampling of editorials in leading American papers shows the Republicans shouldering most of the blame. And how are these events being perceived abroad? The international press is coming down even harder on the Republicans in Congress over this fiasco. Many are incredulous that the most powerful nation on earth can be hamstrung by a minority representing some 10 to 15% of the electorate at best. And they are not kind in their coverage. Even the staid CBC is using uncharacteristically harsh language in describing this political impasse.

Neil MacDonald, the Senior Washington Correspondent for CBC News wrote a stinging op-ed on Friday criticizing “the Republican civil war that’s now tearing apart the party, shuttering entire sections of the U.S. government, and maybe propelling the entire economy toward catastrophe.” It is well worth a careful read. Ezra Klein in The Washington Post carried a similar story on Saturday on the “civil war” currently underway in Republican ranks. Both stories help to put the current crisis in perspective.

How will it all end? John Boehner has forcefully stated that he will not let the United States default on its debt obligations. If he holds true to this position, it means that – very close to the final deadline – he will suspend the Hastert Rule (as he did to avoid the Fiscal Cliff at the end of 2011) and allow a motion raising the debt ceiling to come to the floor of the House that the Democrats and some conciliatory Republicans will assent to. The Senate will quickly ratify it as well, and the President will sign it into law as the clock ticks down the final minutes until financial disaster.

But such a move will also entail Boehner defying the Tea Party hardliners and incurring their wrath. He will likely be challenged (as he was at the beginning of the current session) by Tea Party members seeking to remove him as House leader.

cartoon-Boehner:Obama

Even if the U.S. does manage to step away from the brink, we should not expect a clear win for either side. The debt ceiling increase that is passed will be enough to avert the immediate crisis but likely not enough to resolve the issue completely. Republicans will cache this bargaining chip for another time. And there will come another time – not that far off – when the nation will be forced to go through this exasperating exercise once again.

Credits: Kevin Lamarque/Reuters; TV/AP; Jessica Rinaldi/Reuters; Gary Cameron/Reuters; Washington Post