“Vote No, Hope Yes”: Washington’s Dumbest Crisis

On Tuesday night I filed a story on the House’s debt limit vote and confidently predicted “the end” of brinkmanship over the full faith and credit of the etc. Half a day later, when the Senate took up the House’s bill, I wrote a quick item about how Ted Cruz’s demand for a 60-vote threshold required Mitch McConnell and John Cornyn to “walk the plank” and vote for the “clean” bill they’d wanted to oppose. The outcome of the vote was just what anyone watching this process could have predicted in January—or even earlier. The GOP had no stomach for another showdown. You can’t run a “BREAKING” alert every time Charlie Brown fails to kick the football. After a while, you can assume he will.

Now I’m regretting spending so little time on the Senate vote itself. Should I? Here’s the thing: It ended up making for a classic micro-drama, and the best reporters on the scene found a scene drenched in bitterness and folly.

Miffed that they have long been asked to take tough votes when the GOP leaders voted ‘no,’ Sens. Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski, privately pressured McConnell and Cornyn to vote to break the filibuster, sources said. Murkowski resisted voting for the measure without the support of her leadership team.

As the drama grew in the chamber with the vote’s prospects in doubt, McConnell turned to his colleagues and said: “We’re not doing this again,” according to a source familiar with his remarks.

So McConnell and Cornyn — both facing reelection this year and battling tea party-inspired challengers in their states — took the plunge and risked the political backlash by voting to break a filibuster, the type of vote the two wily leaders have long sought to avoid in this election season.

It’s not as though Cornyn and McConnell went from being snow-pure on the debt limit to being vulnerable. Both had voted to raise the debt limit when George W. Bush was president. And it’s not as though their colleagues were really cynical—they did want to use the debt limit to extract concessions. Realizing that they had no leverage just, you know, took a while. Here, maybe this video clip can explain it:

So what actual dramas broke out on the floor?

- Ted Cruz, who’s still ostensibly working with the National Republican Senatorial Committee, refused to let several of his up-for-re-election colleagues take an easy vote. Had he not requested a 60-vote threshold, Republicans could have expected Democrats to pass the thing with 51 to 55 votes.

- The Senate secretary didn’t read the votes as they came in. This, as the media realize later, was not kosher. Typically Senate votes begin with a calming voice announcing the yeas and nays. “Mr. Alexander? Mr. Alexander, no.” You’ve watched C-SPAN 2. You’ve heard it. But this time, senators got the scorekeeper to cover for them while they bumbled their way across the 60-vote threshold. The House had jammed the debt limit vote a day earlier than expected, then the Senate was getting jammed with no time to strategize.

If this sounds pathetic, that’s because it is. Carl Hulse puts it very well here: Most Republicans want the country to keep running, but don’t want to provide tough votes if they can be used against them in primaries. But I’d go further than Hulse. More than ever, most members of Congress are structurally protected from any consequences for any votes they take. Like I wrote yesterday, only four incumbent Republicans in the House and Senate, total, lost primaries in 2012. None of them lost only because they voted to raise the debt limit.

Individually, they’re totally safe. Collectively, they often can’t act. So the only real pressure exerted on a party is the external backlash that follows a big, collective failure—the definitive case this year being the government shutdown, the definitive case in 2011 being the collapse of a House Republican debt limit bill.

Supposedly, the main reason for the silent vote count yesterday was that senators didn’t want to spook the markets. That was assuming too much. The markets didn’t panic over the “fiscal cliff.” They prospered during the government shutdown. They didn’t react specifically to this round of crisis. Investors realize how pointless and predictable these “vote no, hope yes” fights are. As a reporter, it’s awfully hard to disagree.