What chutzpah! The GOP’s shutdown scheme

Today’s politics reminds me of the classic example of chutzpah: the man who murders his parents and throws himself on the mercy of the court because he is an orphan.

Republican leaders, formal ones like Speaker of the House John Boehner and the self-appointed organizer, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, show that same chutzpah.

They claim a shutdown and maybe even a debt default are warranted because Democrats won’t compromise, but they set up these crises. Behind closed doors and on the Senate floor, Republicans planned and created extreme circumstances aimed at stopping the Affordable Care Act.

One part of the scheme was making a normal congressional budget compromise impossible.

Consider what happened in the Senate this year. In March, after voting all night on amendments, the Senate passed a budget. Normally the next step would be sending it to the House of Representatives, along with a bipartisan list of senators who would compromise with the other body. But most Republican senators didn’t want negotiations.

Fifty-nine days after the Senate budget was passed, Sen. Patty Murray, the chair of the Budget Committee, came to the Senate floor to decry this state of the affairs. Sens. John McCain and Susan Collins joined Murray and called upon their Republican colleagues to send the budget to the House. 

McCain said, “What [do] we on my side of the aisle keep doing? We don’t want a budget unless — unless — we put requirements on the conferees that are absolutely out of line and unprecedented.”

That May day was the ninth time Republicans blocked the normal process for compromise. Then they did it 10 more times.

Stopping negotiations was the plan. After President Barack Obama made an end-of-the-year deal to prevent the fiscal cliff, tea party legislators told Boehner they didn’t want him to talk with Obama again.

In January 2013, House Republicans held a retreat in Williamsburg, Va., and set their strategy that culminated in our current crisis. Republicans lost the popular vote in five of the six last presidential elections, losing young voters and emerging demographic groups and losing the popular vote in 2012 House and Senate races.

While the Republican National Committee urged different policies and a new tone, House Republicans decided to double down. They planned to block compromise, threaten to shut down the government and breach the debt limit and then claim that Democrats needed to negotiate and accept Republican demands. As journalist Jonathan Chait wrote, “Republicans have planned since January to force Obama to accede to large chunks of the Republican agenda, without Republicans having to offer any policy concessions of their own.”

Simultaneously, tea party groups and funders set out to pressure moderate Republicans. As the New York Times reported this weekend, “Although the law’s opponents say that shutting down the government was not their objective, the activists anticipated that a shutdown could occur — and worked with members of the Tea Party caucus in Congress who were excited about drawing a red line against a law they despise.”

Obama has long said he would not negotiate over the debt ceiling and would not respond to these tactics by crippling health reform. He is convinced this process, if normalized, undermines governability.

In the Maine Senate delegation, Sen. Angus King, who hoped to promote responsible politics and policymaking, seems frustrated by this political gamesmanship.

Collins, who spoke out in May, recently voted against the continuing resolution that included Obamacare funding. Now she’s made a proposal on medical device taxes that would blow a $30 billion hole in the federal budget and is but another version of attempting to force concessions under threat. Her approach ultimately supports the broader Republican strategy.

As the shutdown causes real economic harm, a greater crisis looms. According to an estimate from Goldman Sachs, missing debt payments would throw the economy back into recession.

Tying defunding Obamacare to the federal budget is highly unpopular, garnering 70 percent disapproval in multiple polls.

But ultimately it may be business that stops these Republicans. Not only does the U.S. Chamber of Commerce oppose the Republican approach, but moderate, pragmatic business Republicans have started to organize primary challengers against those who support these strategies. Such chutzpah may very well have its limits.

Amy Fried

About Amy Fried

Amy Fried loves Maine's sense of community and the wonderful mix of culture and outdoor recreation. She loves politics in three ways: as an analytical political scientist, a devoted political junkie and a citizen who believes politics matters for people's lives. Fried is Professor of Political Science at the University of Maine. Her views do not reflect those of her employer or any group to which she belongs.