The irony is, many congressional Republicans sincerely thought their budget strategy – threaten a government shutdown over Affordable Care Act funding – might help divide Democrats. Instead, it’s starting to tear the GOP apart.
To be sure, the divisions have been simmering for a while. Over the August recess, for every Republican lawmaker who endorsed the shutdown scheme, there was another who denounced it as ridiculous. This month, we’ve seen the House GOP leadership lose its battle against the House GOP rank and file.
But the tensions boiled over yesterday when Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) made a prediction the right didn’t want to hear.
Cruz made the comment in a statement predicting that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada and his Democratic majority will back a spending bill that holds the 2010 health care law harmless.
“Harry Reid will no doubt try to strip the defund language from the continuing resolution, and right now he likely has the votes to do so,” Cruz said. “At that point, House Republicans must stand firm, hold their ground, and continue to listen to the American people.”
And that’s when House Republicans, who were already unhinged, started to really lose it, with GOP lawmakers accusing Cruz of waving the “white flag” and “surrendering.” Another said Senate Republicans are good at getting Facebook likes and organizing town-hall meetings, but “not much else.” One senior House Republican aide said Sens. Mike Lee (R-Utah), Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), and Cruz “are like the kids in high school who would yell fight ‘fight, fight’ but have never thrown a punch in their entire life.”
What is causing congressional Republicans to unravel like this, just as the party needs to come together to pull off a risky government-shutdown scheme? The answer is, we appear to be witnessing an exceedingly awkward game of “hot potato.”
House Republicans – most of them anyway – want credit for doing what the party’s extremist base wants them to do. So they’ll pass a spending bill that defunds the federal health care law, threaten a shutdown, and run to Fox News to declare, “See how conservative we are?”
As they see it, the pressure will shift to the Senate, where the House GOP expects folks like Cruz to fight the good fight, taking a firm stand against the dreaded Affordable Care Act.
Yesterday, Cruz effectively said to the House, “Oh no you don’t; this one’s on you, not me.” He sees the lower chamber handing him the hot potato and he’s preemptively handing it back.
For the House, this is outrageous. What do you mean it’s on us, they’re saying. You spent the entire August recess asking for this fight.
And for Cruz, this is ridiculous. What do you want me to do, he argues. I’m in the minority and you’re not. If you want a shutdown, go right ahead.
As they go back and forth, avoiding responsibility and pointing fingers, the shutdown deadline draws closer and Democrats sit back and wonder how they ended up with such inept rivals.
This is, by the way, likely to get worse. Most Senate Republicans don’t want to shut down the government and see the House GOP’s games as a recipe for failure that risks a severe public backlash. Many House Republicans are ready to shut down the government anyway, if only because it’s what right-wing activists have come to expect of them.
And so, sometime next week, the Senate will reject the House gambit and pass a spending bill of its own, and it will once again fall to the radicalized House Republicans to decide whether or not they actually want a shutdown or not. They created this mess – heck, they invited it – and now they’re stuck with it.
The scuttlebutt says the House GOP will cave in the end, unwilling to suffer the public-relations consequences. Maybe, maybe not. Either way, these divisions are doing lasting damage to a party that can ill afford more humiliating setbacks.