The GOP’s Suicide Squeeze

House Republicans aren’t just courting disaster. They’re helping President Obama make the case that they were the problem all along.

US President Barack Obama

If the government shuts down or the economy tanks, the public won’t blame this guy.

Photo by Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images

During the periodic budget fits that have seized Washington for the last several years, President Obama and his team have made a consistent claim about negotiating with Republicans. No matter what the president tries, or whom he negotiates with, the White House can never make progress because congressional Republicans are controlled by a hard-right faction that refuses to compromise or accept anything less than total victory. According to Obama, that is what killed the famous “grand bargain” talks with House Speaker John Boehner in the summer of 2011, and it’s what killed the so-called Supper Club negotiations on the budget this summer with Republican senators. Now the GOP is handing the president more evidence for his claim. Republicans, including staunch conservatives, admit that a small band of ultrapure conservatives have forced the larger congressional GOP membership into a witless act of blundering self-destruction. 

In the coming budget fight with the president, Republicans don’t just risk the political damage of a temporary government shutdown, they risk validating the president’s argument that the party is whipsawed by a reckless minority.

Snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. That’s the way several Republican members of Congress and their aides characterized the political predicament they find themselves in today. President Obama has had a rough few weeks. His plans for Syria were sloppy and uncertain. He sought Congress’s support—after his aides privately told members he wouldn’t rope them into a decision—even while he told them there was no urgency and they could enjoy their Labor Day break. Then Larry Summers, his preferred nominee to lead the Federal Reserve, was undermined by Democrats and had to pull his name from consideration. The president got snippy about all the criticism, which invited a round of stories and columns about the sorry state of his presidency.

House Republicans must feel sorry for the president—why else would they take pressure off his administration by staging their own party crackup? House Republican leaders, under threat from their most conservative members, have offered a plan to keep the government operating through December that is conditioned on defunding Obama’s unpopular health care plan. The worry among a large group of Republicans is that the gambit will lead to a government shutdown, which will be a political disaster for the party, weaken their leverage in the budget fights, and upend the worthy goal of dismantling Obamacare. “People are not going to blame the president for shutting down the government,” says Republican Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin. “The White House and Democrats have the upper hand here.” 

Johnson is no squish. He was elected in 2010 by running against Obamacare. He even spent millions of his own dollars to do it. Johnson is also hardly an Obama administration pal. He has had public confrontations with Hillary Clinton and John Kerry when they’ve come before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He’s not alone in thinking the GOP is making a colossal mistake. Conservative Sens. Tom Coburn, Richard Burr, and Kelly Ayotte also think it is a foolhardy idea.

In the fight for the soul of the Republican Party, this battle is on a different kind of ground. It’s not a fight between establishment politicians and the grass roots; it’s a fight between a slice of the grass roots and everyone else in the party. It is an extension of the conservative purity contest we have seen in the Wyoming Senate challenge where upstanding conservative Mike Enzi is being challenged by Liz Cheney on the grounds that he has not been a sufficiently pugilistic toward Democrats. 

These are fights that are less about ideology than tactics—though they bleed together quickly. Conservatives pushing to defund Obamacare argue that you aren’t really that exercised about the president’s plans if you’re not willing to do whatever it takes to dismantle them. Not only do Republicans owe it to their constituents to keep up the fight, but this is their last chance. The insurance exchanges start signing people up on Oct. 1. After that, too many people will have signed up and the fight will be lost.

Sen. Johnson and others argue that the upper chamber will not defund Obamacare because it is controlled by Democrats. This is an unavoidable fact that should have killed the gambit from the get-go. By forcing the issue, House Republicans waste time and court a shutdown. When that happens, they will get the blame, just as the party did after the 1995 government shutdown or perhaps even more so. Congress is less popular, and people are hurting more from the economy.

What irks Obamacare opponents in the Senate who object to the House GOP’s aggressive tactics is that they feel they were winning the Obamacare fight. The public is against it as much as they have ever been and will only be more so as it is implemented. As Karl Rove argues, that dynamic changes when voters are asked whether defunding Obamacare is worth risking even a temporary shutdown—particularly for Republican-leaning independents. By moving too fast, purists risk making all Obamacare opponents look like mindless partisans willing to risk the health of the economy. The Chamber of Commerce, a stalwart GOP ally, even asked congressional Republicans to stand down.

There is more than just temporary pain at stake here. As the GOP’s factions duke it out, Republicans are filling in the caricature of dysfunction the president has sketched for voters. Republicans are throwing around terms like “suicide note” to describe their own party’s strategy. The Wall Street Journal editorial page calls it a “kamikaze” strategy. Sen. Bob Corker seemed to have no doubt that Sen. Ted Cruz was still backing this strategy when he made a not-so-veiled dig at Cruz, who attended Princeton and Harvard. “I didn’t go to Harvard or Princeton, but I can count—the defunding box canyon is a tactic that will fail and weaken our position.” (The term “box canyon” was most recently used in conservative circles to describe the hapless president.) This is not only an unpleasant airing of Republican differences, but it also suggests that it may be a lot harder for the GOP to come together to fight against Obama on the coming debt ceiling the longer this slugfest continues. 

Cruz is getting it from both sides. His Republican colleagues say his support of the defund adventure is about nothing but his presidential ambitions. In the House, though, his fellow travelers think he’s chickening out. After the House’s hardline conservatives put on their chin straps and signed on to this exciting play, Cruz issued a press release that seemed to suggest he wasn’t going to do much to buck the reality that the Senate is controlled by Democrats. After all that time judging the manhood of other Republicans, Cruz wasn’t going to mount a talking filibuster, camp outside Majority Leader Harry Reid’s office, or do something to back up his House colleagues? “House agrees to send #CR to Senate that defunds Obamacare. @SenTedCruz & @SenMikeLee refuse to fight. Wave white flag and surrender,” tweeted Rep. Sean Duffy of Wisconsin.

Republicans might appear to be able to quickly unlock themselves from this bind. Boehner could simply ignore the House’s conservative crusaders, gather some Democratic support, and pass a funding measure that would avoid a shutdown. There are two reasons he won’t do this. The first is that Boehner doesn’t want to risk a revolt that might threaten his position as House speaker.

The second reason may be more controlling. The minute Boehner allows Democrats to know he needs them to pass anything, he will start getting demands from them. Anything that would win Democratic votes would lose Republican votes—including Boehner’s, because at bottom, the House speaker does want to shrink the government in a way that is fundamentally at odds with a near-majority of the Democratic conference.  

That is why Boehner and his GOP leaders are in such a fix. He’s stuck pursuing a strategy he doesn’t like but that represents the least bad option. That sure sounds familiar. That’s the way people described Obama’s anemic approach to military action in Syria two weeks ago. Boehner has backed a plan to shut down the government unless Obamacare is defunded, but he doesn’t want the notion of a shutdown to enter anyone’s mind. “There should be no conversation about shutting the government down. That’s not the goal here, our goal is to cut spending and to protect the American people from Obamacare,” said Boehner on Wednesday. OK, but the only thing that is going to make that happen is the threat of the shutdown, but it’s not much of a threat if you say it’s the one thing you’re trying to avoid. You can’t play a game of chicken when you’ve pulled over to the side of the road.

Where this goes from here is not clear. The Senate will not accept the House bill, so it will send a “clean” funding bill back to the House stripped of the Obamacare poison. In the most optimistic GOP view, the “hello no” caucus will learn that this was a bootless effort and they will sign on to whatever Boehner cooks up to keep the government doors open. Is this group of conservatives really going to change their mind? What will cause them to do so? The constituents back home who have been cheering their fight to defund Obamacare? The increased condescension that the New York Times editorialists use when describing them? A stock market plunge? 

If the loss doesn’t get Boehner the votes he needs, he will then have no other choice but to turn to Democrats for votes to avoid a shutdown. That won’t be pretty, because Democrats will exact a price against the backdrop of the ticking clock. (If you are counting at home, there are only 12 days until the government technically runs out of money).

A government funding mechanism that passes with Democratic votes will excite some sharp comments from the very group that Boehner is having trouble satisfying. And this is just the scrimmage before the big game. Republicans will need to be unified before the debt limit fight in mid-to-late October. If the government shutdown is bad for the economy, the debt ceiling fight is catastrophic.

In the debt limit fight, Boehner wants to push for a one-year pause on enforcing the Obamacare individual mandate, arguing that it’s only fair given that Obama has frozen the portion of the bill that affects businesses with more than 50 employees.* But the president has said he won’t negotiate on the debt limit at all. He isn’t even picking up the phone. Why talk to Republicans when they are busy tearing themselves apart?

Correction, Sept. 22, 2013: This article originally stated that Obama froze the portion of the bill that affected small businesses. That portion was to affect businesses with more than 50 employees.