Boehner Succeeds in Switching Demands

Ezra Klein picks up on an important point in this morning’s Wonkbook:

Two issues led to the shutdown. One was defunding or delaying Obamacare. The other, as Sen. Ted Cruz put it, was “making D.C. listen.”

What’s been remarkable — and largely unnoticed — is that Republicans have abandoned both those demands.

What’s odder about the shutdown, though, is that Republicans have also abandoned their core policy demand. They’ve largely stopped talking about Obamacare. They’re begging simply for negotiations. Their latest plan, in fact, is for another budget commission:

The GOP’s play, announced by Cantor at the meeting, is to push for a bicameral commission that brought comparisons to the “supercommittee” from the 2011 Budget Control Act.

In a Wall Street Journal op-ed, Paul Ryan articulates the emerging strategy. “To break the deadlock, both sides should agree to common-sense reforms of the country’s entitlement programs and tax code,” he writes. The word “Obamacare” never appears in the piece. Nor does any other reference to the president’s health-care law.

The Republican Party initially justified this shutdown and these tactics to itself by arguing that it was channeling the will of the people and justified by the dangers of Obamacare. But they’ve lost pubic opinion and realized Obamacare isn’t up for negotiation. But the loss of their original rationale for the shutdown hasn’t led them to reopen the government.

It shouldn’t surprise anyone that Boehner and Republican leaders first started by demanding the president defund or delay Obamacare. Speaker Boehner could not betray the Tea Party and split his party in half by bringing up a clean CR. Even if he had brought up a clean CR that also repealed the medical device tax, the Tea Party still would’ve been infuriated. It would’ve split the Republican party in half. This has clearly been the case all along and Boehner’s strategy has always been to slowly ratchet down GOP demands over time so that the Tea Party believes he fought for them. First it was defund Obamacare. Then it was delay Obamacare. After that it was delay the individual mandate. As Klein points out, GOP demands now have nothing to do with Obamacare.

Boehner knew all along Senate Democrats and Obama weren’t going to change the law. It was a non-starter. But he had to at least show his conservative members that he fought for them. Allowing a government shutdown to happen and drag out for a couple of weeks is a good way of showing them that.

His next step was to quietly switch demands from something unattainable to something possible. This was the toughest part as the Tea Party would revolt if it became clear he was giving up on their goal of stopping Obamacare. As Klein notes, this switch happened “largely unnoticed.” That’s a big victory for Boehner.

Now he still has to return to his party with some concession from the president. It doesn’t have to be much, but he can’t have chosen two major fiscal fights and return with nothing. He also must show that he fought as hard as he could – that means waiting until the last minute to make a deal. This is Boehner’s strategy in every one of these fights and it has succeeded repeatedly. In my first article defending Boehner, I wrote that his strategy is the following:

  1. Lie to his caucus, allow them to “take control” and make it seem as if disaster will strike
  2. Use that desperation to subtly change the conversation to the upcoming disaster and extract concessions from Democrats
  3. Go back to his caucus, say he got everything he could and convince them to vote to avoid the crisis at the last minute
  4. Keep his speakership by allowing himself to seem weak and extract some concessions
  5. Lather, rinse, repeat

Allowing the conservatives members to “take control” required shutting down the government this time. But the rest is unfolding exactly as I wrote. He lied to his caucus about stopping Obamacare, allowed them to “take control” and is now using that desperation to extract any type of concession from Democrats in return for opening up the government and raising the debt ceiling. He’ll then go back to his members, say he got everything he could and we’ll avoid a default. The Tea Party will be angry, but not quite angry enough to challenge his speakership. Lather, rinse, repeat. The hardest part was switching his party’s demands from stopping Obamacare to a fiscal concession. Now that he’s done that, the rest isn’t too difficult. It’ll just take until the 11th hour to play out.

It’s Time for Pelosi and House Dems to Support Boehner

The one thing that is severely limiting John Boehner’s ability to negotiate and compromise with Senate Democrats over the budget and pass a clean debt ceiling increase is the threat of losing his speakership. Hard-line conservatives refuse to accept the political reality that Obamacare is the law of the land and are rejecting any budget deal that does not either defund or delay it. It’s an absurd negotiating position and President Obama will never agree to it. That puts us at a stalemate.

There is likely sufficient Democratic support in the House to pass a clean continuing resolution while keeping the sequester if Boehner chooses to bring such a bill to the floor. It probably would break the Hastert Rule (meaning it would not receive majority Republican support), but it would also prevent a government shutdown. However, if Boehner does that, his speakership would almost certainly be over. Here’s Buzzfeed’s Kate Nocera reporting:

“The House needs to completely defund Obamacare, not one penny to Obamacare. If so groups would reluctantly live with a one year no funding deal, but has to fully defund all aspects of Obamacare. Delay without defund or if House funds it in any capacity, then all hell is going to break loose,” said a conservative strategist who was on the call.

The strategist said a one-year delay of funding was “as far as these groups are willing to go.”

“If the House does not stick to its guns on this, there will be a major problem with the conservative and tea party base,” the strategist said.

This gives Boehner no maneuvering room. His options are to either defy the tea party base and lose his speakership or shutdown the government.

But there is one way for Boehner to ensure that he keeps his speakership even if he passes a bill that causes a Tea Party revolt: Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and House Democrats should publicly commit to supporting Boehner if he brings up a clean CR and his base challenges him. This gives Boehner political cover to avoid a government shutdown while also demonstrating an ability to work with House Democrats. The Tea Party would go absolutely nuts, but who cares? Congress isn’t going to accomplish anything until after 2014 anyways.

As for Boehner’s personal incentives, if he really is going to retire after 2014, then right now he is looking to improve his legacy. He is (wrongly) considered an ineffective speaker who has accomplished very little. A government shutdown would only make his resume look worse. But avoiding a government shutdown while keeping the sequester would be a Republican victory that he could be proud of. He would undoubtedly take pleasure in reducing the power of the Tea Party as well. Even if he isn’t planning on retiring, a government shutdown increases the odds that Democrats take back the House which would end Boehner’s speakership in 2014 anyways. Avoiding a shutdown is in his personal interest no matter his future plans.

The biggest issue here is that relying on Democratic support makes Boehner a lame-duck speaker. If he still wanted to accomplish anything during the rest of this Congress, he would face such animosity from his base that he would have to rely on Democratic support. That’s a big problem for him. A few weeks ago, I wrote that it was basically too big of a problem to make it worth betraying the Tea Party. Now, the math has changed. Immigration reform is on life-support and Tea Party opposition to any CR that doesn’t defund or delay Obamacare has left Boehner with no good options. Avoiding a government shutdown with a clean CR would be good politics for the Republican Party and also good for the economy. The challenge is to make it politically feasible for Boehner to do. Nancy Pelosi and House Democrats have the ability to do just that and it’s time they did so.

P.S. This would also ensure that we didn’t breach the debt ceiling as Pelosi and Boehner should make a similar deal over that. In fact, its much more important that Pelosi put her support behind Boehner in the debt ceiling standoff so that he feels safe raising the debt ceiling without any concessions from the president. That’s absolutely vital.