Two weeks ago, I noted that the collapse of the House transportation and housing appropriations bill shattered Republican leverage for upcoming budget talks. As both moderate and conservative Republican factions ran in opposite directions when faced with voting for actual specific spending cuts, I concluded: “There are not 218 House Republicans who will actually follow through on their own demands, let alone a compromise worked out with Senate Democrats. The Republican flag is planted in mush. Boehner’s leverage is leveraged.”
The only way for Boehner to regain any leverage is to prove he can avoid a shutdown. This morning, the National Review’s Robert Costa suggests he is on his way toward that goal, noting that while “there was disappointment” among Tea Party types upon hearing Boehner’s unwillingness to press for shutdown, “there was no uproar” either.
Costa reports that the House leadership wants to kick the can past the government shutdown deadline but force a debt limit confrontation soon after: “As members huddled and talked through scenarios, leadership aides reminded them that since the House GOP retreat in Williamsburg, Va., earlier this year, the plan has been to end the year with a debt-limit chess game, and not a messy continuing-resolution impasse. But the aides didn’t press too hard. As Boehner knows all too well from past struggles, it often takes only 20 to 30 irritated Republicans to destroy his best-laid plans.”
But there are still gaping holes in this strategy:
1. What specifically is Boehner and 217 other Republicans willing to accept in a fiscal year 2014 budget bill to avoid shutdown? Status quo? Backloaded spending cuts? Higher taxes?
2. What specifically is Boehner and 217 other Republicans planning to demand in exchange to an increase in the debt limit? Spending cuts? Social Security cuts? Medicare cuts? ObamaCare repeal?
3. What specifically is Boehner and 217 other Republican willing to accept for an increase in the debt limit? An unconditional increase? Obama’s grand bargain? Some other mix of spending cuts and tax increases?
Costa’s article may show that Boehner is farther along that many realize in convincing Republicans that shutdown is a fast-track to Crazy Town, needlessly risking giving Congress to the Democrats.
What it doesn’t show is what are they going to do about it.
They still haven’t proved they can unify their caucus around anything resembling a budget compromise.
They still haven’t proved they can unify their caucus around a reason/excuse for taking the debt limit hostage.
It’s common knowledge that Republicans stand to lose big if there is a shutdown — even Karl Rove admitted yesterday it’s “the one tactic that might be able to guarantee that the Democrats pick up seats in the Congress in 2014.”
And that applies tenfold to a breach of the debt limit. Republican leaders have oddly suggested to the rank-and-file and Costa that a “debt-limit chess game” is not “messy” unlike a “continuing-resolution impasse.” But a government shutdown is a mosquito bite compared to the global economic meltdown that a debt limit breach would ignite. And yet Republicans are preoccupied with trying to come up with a excuse to take the world economy to the brink.
In neither looming confrontation do Republicans have their act together. No unity. No leverage.
Until that happens, Boehner is stuck with two unpleasant choices. To repeat myself:
Pass a bipartisan budget deal with primarily Democratic votes, as was done in the fiscal cliff deal.
Or shut the government down, give up on winning the Senate and possibly lose the House majority too.