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'Cromnibus' drama could spawn sequels

The shutdown fight is over -- for now -- but the $1.1 trillion deal's long journey could be a portent of things to come for the new Congress.

The weeks-long battle to avert a new shutdown reached its conclusion late Saturday night when the Senate passed the so-called “cromnibus,” a $1.1 trillion bipartisan deal to fund the vast majority of government through the fiscal year. But the bill’s long winding path, which included a battle with the tea party, a surprise attack from progressives and finally, one last rebellion from the right, could serve as a portent of things to come, highlighting the divisions in both parties that may come to define how the next Congress operates. 

Over the last four years, Republican leaders in the House and Senate relied on high-stakes standoffs over must-pass legislation to advance their agenda, including a series of funding battles that threatened government shutdowns and fights over the debt ceiling that threatened to plunge the economy into a financial crisis. 

This approach secured some policy gains, headlined by a major deficit reduction deal in 2011. But it was a highly unstable strategy. Each standoff raised expectations among the base, which invariably rejected every deal as a surrender and demanded the House and Senate GOP take larger hostages the next time and raise their demands even higher. Over time, leadership found it harder and harder to placate tea party rebellions, leading to a disastrous shutdown in 2013 over health care. That threatened to derail the party before an even more politically damaging rollout of the president’s health care plan restored their fortunes.

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Concerned that the GOP’s brand had become saddled with a reputation for obstructionism and hostage taking, Republican leaders emerged from the midterm elections with a clear message. The party needed to focus more on passing popular legislation and less on staring contests over government funding and the nation’s credit. 

 "Let me make it clear: There will be no government shutdowns and no default on the national debt," incoming Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told the press after Election Day. 

It turns out, however, that old habits are hard to break. On the House side, Speaker John Boehner was only able to quiet GOP demands for a shutdown fight over the president’s immigration action by indicating he was merely postponing the fight until early next year by separating Homeland Security and letting it expire early next year.

But the same forces that scuttled Boehner’s previous attempts to head off crises popped up just the same. Led by tea party groups and bomb throwers like Ted Cruz, dozens of Boehner’s members threatened to torpedo the deal. Lawmakers found that conservative voters who they had told for months needed to turn out to stop a tyrannical out-of-control Obama junta weren’t in the mood for a lecture on patience and pragmatism.

This was nothing new. Boehner had weathered several similar revolts in the past by turning reluctantly to Democrats for help, who were typically happy to play the role of good government savior. 

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Not this time. Just as conservative Republicans realized that their willingness to blow up basic functions of government gave them at leverage, House Democrats determined that Boehner’s inability to corral his members was a source of leverage as well. When the final spending deal, negotiated without their input, showed up and contained riders deregulating Wall Street and loosening campaign finance limits, they asked why they should rescue Boehner from a humiliating defeat for a bill they didn’t like in the first place. 

"We've got to stand up on principle at some point or they're going to kick us even more next year," Democratic Congressman Pete DeFazio of Oregon told reporters ahead of Thursday's House vote. 

For a brief moment, Democrats began to resemble their GOP counterparts. Just as Cruz channeled conservative anger to challenge his own party’s leaders, Senator Elizabeth Warren rallied her own liberal following in direct opposition to Obama and Harry Reid. Their efforts put the bill’s passage in severe doubt, prompting Boehner to cancel scheduled votes and the White House to spring into action to save it.

An open Democratic revolt against the White House was something new. It almost worked, too: Boehner’s inability to gather his own party – 67 Republicans ended up voting “no” -- made Democratic votes absolutely essential. It took an extraordinary last-minute push from Obama himself to provide them. 

The question for the next Congress is whether the Democratic insurgency was an odd blip or a model to be repeated. Even with an expanded majority, Boehner will face similar votes where Republicans alone aren’t enough to get key legislation passed, starting most likely with a deal on Homeland Security funding. Will Democrats quietly fall in line when the White House or Senate Democrats work out a deal or will they try to once again force concessions on their own? Are new leaders like Warren poised to grow their clout as Obama's presidency nears its end and progressives look to the next big thing? Is it possible Republicans find a way, as the White House fears, to exploit Democratic divisions to gain the upper hand? 

On the Senate side, McConnell has issues of his own. Before his role in these situations was usually to sit back and wait for Boehner to corral out his unruly caucus. Now he’ll be leading the Senate and have to prove he can keep his own membership in line. While his GOP caucus is a more pragmatic beast than the tea-infused House, the arcane rules of the Senate enable even a lone member to gum up the works. 

That’s exactly what happened on Saturday when Cruz, to the horror of his Republican colleagues, joined Senator Mike Lee to blow up a deal between McConnell and Reid with a single procedural misstep that not only kept lawmakers from returning home but gave Democrats an opening to confirm more presidential appointees.

Cruz wanted to use his motion as a referendum on Obama’s executive action. Instead it became a referendum on Cruz as Republicans largely sided with Democrats in protest of his tactics. But Cruz has never cared much what Washington thinks of him, only whether he can maintain the loyalty of the conservative grassroots. Assuming he runs for president, the pressure is only going to be higher on Cruz to distinguish himself from a crowded GOP field by going where other members’ are unwilling to tread. McConnell’s headaches have only begun.