Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Rebel whimper: Default-shutdown crisis ends

GAME, SET, MATCH. It’s over. All done. With next to no time on the clock, the crisis of a looming debt-ceiling default ended tonight with the United States Senate effectively superseding the House of Representatives as the fiscal adults in the room, and also ending the 16-day government shutdown. A bipartisan agreement, following on the one hammered out earlier by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, was passed in the Senate, 81-18. Later, the House (with the most Pantone-red Republicans holding their noses) voted for passage, 285-144.

“There is a lot of work ahead of us, including our need to earn back the trust of the American people that has been lost over the last few weeks,” President Obama said in a short speech from the White House.

The deal’s short-term duration could lead to another such confrontation next year, but House Republicans, having just had their asses handed to them, have bigger problems facing them. With the GOP in the House scrambling to find a voice, much less an identity, there are real questions about the leverage they can hope to gain in any future negotiations, if they stay on their present course.

Under the agreement, the borrowing authority of the U.S. government is extended until Feb. 7; the government itself is open again and fully funded until Jan. 15; and both Democrats and Republicans will appoint negotiators to confer on a federal budget, with a report expected by Dec. 13.

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Ever defiant, House Speaker John Boehner managed to raise his fist and the white flag of surrender at the same time.

“The House has fought with everything it has to convince the president of the United States to engage in bipartisan negotiations aimed at addressing our country's debt and providing fairness for the American people under Obamacare. That fight will continue,” he said today in a statement. “But blocking the bipartisan agreement reached today by the members of the Senate will not be a tactic for us.”

Boehner boiled that down to something shorter in an interview with WLW-AM in Cincinnati. “We fought the good fight, we just didn't win.”

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WHERE WE ARE: President Obama gets the clean continuing resolution he wanted from the beginning, with no impact on the Affordable Care Act that is his signature domestic legislative achievement. The wasted time, dilatory tactics and bellicose rhetoric over the last 16 days will be blamed on the Republicans, whose brand is even more tarnished than it was before.

Once again, like before all this even happened, the American economy is on another short leash, with the potential of having to go through some of this all over again starting in January.

And the resolution of this mess with no meaningful contribution from House Republicans and the Tea Party faction that holds them hostage indicates how, by even the most charitable assessment, the Republican Party is a party adrift, wandering from wilderness to wilderness wearing the sackcloth of the Gadsden flag.

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White House press secretary Jay Carney was the soul of diplomacy at a news conference today. ”There are no winners here,” he said to reporters at the White House. “I think it’s fair to say that the experience that we’ve all had demonstrates that the kind of hyper-partisanship that was a problem in the past, especially in one House, continues to be a challenge,” he said.

”What odds do we set on cooperation and bipartisan compromise in the future? I don’t think we would put odds on that. We would simply hope that this experience, if and when it’s over, would remind all of us here that these kinds of crises only create harm to the American people and to the American economy. There are costs that have already been incurred because of shutdown, because of the flirtation with default, and they’re not retrievable.”

Having been burned before, the White House was understandably cautious about any public dances in the end zone before everything was finalized. But by any political metric, the bipartisan agreement can be truthfully defined as a thundering victory for the Obama administration. There is a winner here.

Obamacare is left intact; the ancillary ransom demands of House Republicans trying to attach to any measure resolving the impasse — from approval of the Keystone XL pipeline to tax code changes, from blocking Net neutrality to imposing Medicare means-testing — have been soundly rejected.

Those same Republicans face a new period of soul-searching and reappraisal over their entirely self-inflicted wounds. And importantly, the skeptics who doubted the solidity of the president’s backbone, and the disaffected Obama supporters who assumed he’d fold in the end, have to be upbeat about an outcome that’s proven Obama’s stated intention to stand pat on what, constitutionally speaking, was never less than a winning hand.

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YOU CAN join Carney in debating the identity of the winner here, but there’s no doubt about who lost. Two men in particular. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, the lightning-rod darling of the Tea Party faithful, made a personal crusade to stand in the door of constitutional responsibility, first with his idiotic 21-hour fail on the floor of the Senate, a one-man crusade against the Affordable Care Act he had the nerve to call a filibuster; and later, with his continuing efforts to hasten the shutdown and prevent its end.

“We saw the House of Representatives take a courageous stand listening to the American people, that everyone in 'official Washington' just weeks earlier said would never happen," he said today. Brave words, but ...

Others aren’t so charitable; they used their own brave words in Cruz’s defense, and tonight, they ain’t happy. Check the buyers’ remorse of today’s Houston Chronicle’s editorial:

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“Does anyone else miss Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison?

“We're not sure how much difference one person could make in the toxic, chaotic, hyperpartisan atmosphere in Washington, but if we could choose just one it would be Hutchison, whose years of service in the Senate were marked by two things sorely lacking in her successor, Ted Cruz.

“When we endorsed Ted Cruz in last November's general election, we did so with many reservations and at least one specific recommendation - that he follow Hutchison's example in his conduct as a senator.

“Obviously, he has not done so. Cruz has been part of the problem in specific situations where Hutchison would have been part of the solution.”

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WHENEVER CRUZ goes home to his district, there’ll be hell to pay with his supporters and moderate Republicans alike: one group on his back for ending the fight too soon, the other for picking an unwinnable fight in the first place. But Cruz, with his eager support of a government shutdown that compromised life for millions of Americans already on the margins, has badly damaged his already weak prospects for a White House run in 2016.

With an obvious and callous disregard for what everyday people are going through in America, Cruz wouldn’t stand a chance in the general election. With many moderates blaming him specifically for this phase of the GOP’s rapidly declining fortunes, and with any number of other, more electable, less divisive hopefuls to choose from between now and 2015, Cruz may be on a lonelier presidential quest than the one he’d planned on, baying at a moon only he and fewer and fewer others can see.

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House Speaker John Boehner is similarly damaged, though maybe not forever. Having basically been handed an agreement and told to accept it — the same agreement he could have had House members vote on weeks ago, to the betterment of his image as a leader to the American public — Boehner will suffer for that lack of courage in the short term. And rightly so. He’s shown a willingness to walk away from his principles for the most expedient of reasons. Regardless of the political reasons he had for doing it, he can’t walk that back.

Early and often in the just-ended impasse, we were told of how Boehner was essentially a conservative with a centrist streak, a moderate Republican imprisoned by the Tea Party diktat. I’m not buying this Stockholm syndrome theory; by rejecting more than one opportunity to introduce a clean continuing resolution to the full House well before Oct. 1, Boehner was a lot like the prisoner who refuses to walk out of the cell when he finds the cell door wide open.

Over the last 16 days, Boehner more than once could have cut the extremists’ marionette strings, put party interests on a backburner and acted as the leader of the People’s House, working on their behalf and not his own. His aggressive failure to do that puts the lie to the Boehner-as-victim narrative.

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BUT IRONICALLY, now is when John Boehner could start to become the kind of Speaker of the House of Representatives we’ve been led to believe he might be.

Since it’s a political certainty that the Republicans will not be revisiting this just-ended brinkmanship as a strategy next year — an election year — Boehner has a chance to take the reins of the House, a body chastened by the damage the Tea Party cabal can do, and steer his party back to a more moderate, electable course.

It may be that Boehner has more than a chance to do that. Having navigated through the current crisis, Boehner is the only credible choice for Speaker, and not just because he’s already in the post. Moderate Republicans have no replacement for him; no one in the Tea Party crew has a hope of being a replacement for him. With the field cleared, with the crisis over, this is John Boehner’s best chance to be the dynamic, significant, maybe transformative Speaker of the House he’s made us think was possible.

If he really wants to. If he’s prepared to confront the worst of his party in order to advance the best of its principles.

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Weighing in on the shutdown-default crisis on his “The 700 Club” program, The Rev. Pat Robertson managed to call the question on the Republican obstruction that cost the United States $24 billion in lost revenue, according to Standard & Poor’s. Robertson said: “There comes a time that ... rebels have to grow up and work to make the system successful.”

When Pat Robertson has to explain to the GOP what political practicality looks like, the GOP is in trouble. And it didn’t have to be this way. Tonight, House Republicans and their Tea Party ventriloquists learned the lesson they’ve eagerly told others since 2010: Elections have consequences.

They learned too, that other lesson, maybe the first lesson of politics: You don’t gain favor with the public by trying to take things – like jobs, livelihoods and futures – away from the public.

We reconvene in January. Class dismissed.

Image credits: Senate and House debt-ceiling votes: C-SPAN. Al Sharpton/"That's All Folks": MSNBC. Ted Cruz: Pool. Houston Chronicle nameplate: © 2013 Hearst Newspapers. John Boehner: J. Scott Applewhite/Associated Press.

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