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The Humiliated, Bizarre Republican Party: What Happens Next

Yep, they really shut the government down. How does this mess end -- and will a debt limit showdown be even worse?


Back when the conservative campaign to defund Obamacare by threatening a government shutdown began a few months ago, almost nobody believed Republican leaders would be so cowed by it that they’d follow suit. Particularly given how aware they were of the dire political consequences for the GOP.

And yet that’s what happened. The demand has dwindled — Republicans are now insisting on a one-year delay in the healthcare law’s individual mandate, and a prohibition on members, congressional aides and other government officials getting any kind of healthcare-related compensation from their employers. But midnight came and went this morning, and House Speaker John Boehner never did the blindly obvious thing. He refused to place bipartisan Senate legislation to extend funding for the government on the floor of the House — legislation that would probably pass overwhelmingly right now if he’d just agree to give it a vote. He’s sticking to a new and odd principle that Democrats must yield some Obamacare-related concession to the GOP if they want the government funded. And so it’s shutdown.

“[A]gencies should now execute plans for an orderly shutdown due to the absence of appropriations,” read a memo from OMB director Sylvia Burwell. “We urge Congress to act quickly to pass a Continuing Resolution to provide a short-term bridge that ensures sufficient time to pass a budget for the remainder of the fiscal year, and to restore the operation of critical public services and programs that will be impacted by a lapse in appropriations.”

So what happens now?

The first question is, how long will the shutdown last? Is Boehner doing this to prove a point to his conservative members or is he truly unwilling to fund the government unless Democrats give him some kind of fig leaf or trophy? Several Republicans have already given up the game. The final tug of war between the House and Senate last night was embarrassing for them. They know they’re going to lose, and many of them are prepared to vote for a clean funding bill today. Even high-profile conservatives have publicly questioned Boehner’s decision.

But the night ended on a bizarre note, with House Republicans demanding formal bicameral negotiations over a six-week stopgap funding bill (as if the lengthy process of regular order were an appropriate way to fund government agencies set to shut down within an hour) after having refused formal negotiations with the Senate over a real budget for six months. Just how Boehner backs out of that one, or squares the demand with Republicans’ extremely public intransigence on the budget this year, is an open question.

Either way it can’t last too long. Now that furloughs have begun and services are interrupted, the cry from the public to end the shutdown should escalate quickly over the course of the next week or so. And if Republicans don’t yield to that pressure, they’ll soon find themselves staring into an abyss. The debt limit will need to be increased just days later. And though the shutdown will probably reduce the pace of government expenditures enough to buy Congress a very small amount of time, the Treasury will come calling sooner than later. It would constitute another act of bizarreness for Boehner to call Congress back to raise the debt limit and then return to the regularly scheduled shutdown, already in progress.

Which brings us to another vital issue.

Over the past several weeks, an unintuitive but reasonable argument has become a new conventional wisdom in Washington: that a government shutdown is actually, perversely, in the country’s best interest. Republicans have overcommitted themselves to their voting base, and even to some of their rank and file members. They’ve promised to use the congressional budget process to extract huge concessions from President Obama, over Obama’s repeated insistence that he will not be extorted. Better, then, that Republicans come to terms with their powerlessness now, when the consequence is a government shutdown, instead of later when it’s a much more dangerous debt limit breach. Once they do, they’ll deescalate, and the threat of a debt default will recede.

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