The Sad and Predictable Death of the “Fund Our Veterans” Republican Gambit

A veteran visits the World War II Memorial, closed to the public due to the government shutdown, on Oct. 1, 2013.

Photo by Karen Bleier/AFP/Getty Images

Ideally, as of this morning, Republicans were hoping that Democrats would come to Jesus and agree to form a conference committee to hammer out the continuing resolution. As of this afternoon, Republicans thought they had a Plan B (honestly, more like a Plan F at this point) that would scramble the “narrative” of the shutdown and bring Democrats back into the ring. 

The plan sort of came from Sen. Ted Cruz. On Sunday, Cruz could see that Barack Obama would demagogue the shutdown by wailing that Republicans were taking away veterans’ benefits, closing public parks, playing the new Miley Cyrus single on blast, and so forth. “I think we ought to start passing continuing resolutions narrowly focused on each of the things the President listed,” said Cruz.

On Monday evening, a few House Republicans started talking this up. Again, this afternoon, it became full-on GOP strategy, with the House GOP reading a small bill that would fund veterans’ benefits, public parks, and the District of Columbia. After 7 p.m., it would get a vote.

Before that vote, you could find plenty of Republicans high on the strategy. Mike Lee, Cruz’s Senate life partner, gave a speech attempting to flip the “taking government hostage” attack onto the Democrats. “Let’s leave Obamacare for another day and not hold the vast majority of government functions hostage when the vast majority of government functions don’t have anything to do with the implementation and enforcement of Obamacare,” he said. His phrasing confused people, and on a conference call Sen. John Cornyn seemed to think that Lee had just surrendered.

“I agree with Mike that this is not the best vehicle, or really the right vehicle, to fight that fight,” he said. “It sounds like we’re all unified that any opportunity to defund Obamacare through the CR, if there was such an opportunity, it’s now gone.”

I asked Cornyn about Lee’s specific plan—did the mini-CR make sense? Could the GOP pass that and not fund Obamacare?

“Part of it is to make clear it’s not Republicans who are determined to shut down this process, but rather Harry Reid, and the president, who kind of like where we are because they think they win that battle,” he said. “This is a pretty good idea, but it’s not one that’s going to sustain us forever.”

Lee and Cornyn made the same mistake. They didn’t see how the Democrats could bring down the bill. But they could, easily. Republicans were trying to suspend the rules to pass the mini-CR, protecting it from Democratic tricks or amendments. That meant they needed a two-thirds vote of the House; since 428 members were voting, they needed 286 of ‘em. That freed up most Democrats to kill the bill, and 164 of them did so.

This sparked immediate outrage on the right, best (and most educationally) expressed by Heritage Action’s Michael Needham.

A great point, but here’s an often-ignored problem with gerrymandering: It shores up Democrats, too. On the veterans measure, the most politically treacherous, 33 Democrats voted with the GOP, blunting possible “why do you hate the troops?” attacks. They included Iowa Rep. Bruce Braley and Michigan Rep. Gary Peters, who are running for U.S. Senate, and a bunch of members from swing seats or deep-red seats, from Arizona Rep. Ron Barber to Utah Rep. Jim Matheson. I don’t know how effective the “he voted against our veterans!” attack will be when this saga ends, but I’d guess the other members will be safe if the government is funded at some point. Anyway, the D.C. and parks provisions went down by larger margins.

So: For the second time, the GOP pursued a Ted Cruz strategy to embarrass Democrats into taking tough votes, underestimated how many of them would take them, and won nothing but a talking point.

Read the rest of Slate’s coverage of the government shutdown.