The Final(?) Collapse of the House Republicans

When Republicans look back on this whole debacle, they will remember it as a failure on the part of their wimpy leaders, not a huge strategic error.

Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images

If you followed every turn of the 2013 shutdown fight closely, it’s hard to think of a policy that House Republicans forced into the discussion by dragging this out. Obamacare defunding? Not just doomed but discredited. Mandate delay? Also set back, because the party wasted two weeks on a shutdown when it could have been campaigning against healthcare.gov’s crippling site errors. (They can join that program already in progress when this shutdown fight is over.) The Vitter Amendment? They were talking about that before the shutdown, and it was small beer to start with.

If you were awake in 2011 during the last debt limit fight, or the end of 2012 for the collapse of John Boehner’s “Plan B” face-saving measure, it’s hard to believe that the party repeated the exact same debacle.

- There was an early attempt to get a pace-setting vote on a watered-down version of what House Republicans wanted. In 2011 this was an early-July bill that failed to demand passage of a balanced-budget amendment. When it fell short, after members were streaming in and out of John Boehner’s office, unconvinced, Boehner brought up a new bill with the balanced-budget amendment locked in—passable in the House, doomed in the Senate. We repeated this in 2013, as the late-September GOP leadership idea of splitting up the Obamacare funding and CR votes was shredded by the base and the leadership started its desparate fumbling.

- There was an eleventh-hour attempt by John Boehner to run a lap around the House and see if he could salvage 218 votes for a Republican plan. At the end of 2012, this was “Plan B,” the GOP’s version of the fiscal cliff deal. Republicans grasped for it, unsure of whether they could round up votes; their failure to wrangle those votes gave away the game to Democrats. That’s exactly what happened yesterday—an utterly wasted 12 hours that began with a whittled-down Republican bill and ended when Boehner realized he lacked the votes to pass it.

As in 2011, as in the winter battle of 2012–2013, the House GOP’s utter inability to break through the Senate’s resistence will lead to the passage of a “clean” or (cleaner) bill with most House Democrats joining a rump of Republicans. Senate aides are confident of that happening, but more than a little irritated that it didn’t happen two weeks ago, before Republicans had discredited themselves. Talking to reporters yesterday, Sen. Lindsey Graham seemed downright depressed at the thought of Boehner being weakened or overthrown—the Republicans of the World’s Greatest Deliberative Body wanted to give him a chance. Instead, for the third time, they’ve watched outside pressure groups crack the whip and conservatives cut the speaker down. The late-Tuesday decision by Heritage Action to “score” against the final Boehner plan was one last indignity; the bill was already failing, but the hard right would get to claim credit, again, for scotching a compromise.

No, if you’re a Republican leader, you’ve made no progress with your party’s activist base at all. You get no credit for walking the line. RedState’s Erick Erickson has already banged the gavel.

Reid knows how to beat McConnell. If Reid fights hard, McConnell backs down and tries to blame others. McConnell’s lieutenants attack Ted Cruz so “the Leader” can deflect from his own legislative impotence. And he continually is one step behind Reid in his knowledge of how to use the Senate’s complicated rules to win a fight. You will see no defunding of Obamacare because Republicans are giving up.

The way that’s written—and it reflects what a lot of conservatives think—you’d think McConnell had some break-glass solution to the problem that he was too wimpy to use. There wasn’t. McConnell controlled 45 votes in the Senate. Had he marshalled them in a filibuster against the continuing resolution, to prevent the Obamacare debate from ever starting, House Republicans would have been in the same position.

But you can already see how the conservative base will remember this episode. It won’t be a story of Republicans making a huge strategic error and bumbling into an Obamacare-defunding fight without the votes to ever win. It will be a story of wimpy party leaders selling out. The shutdown would have been winnable if they hadn’t sold out.