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Congress abhors a vacuum

House Republicans are angry, divided, and lacking direction. They're pushing two crises at the same time -- a government shutdown and a debt-ceiling hostage
Congress abhors a vacuum
Congress abhors a vacuum

House Republicans are angry, divided, and lacking direction. They're pushing two crises at the same time -- a government shutdown and a debt-ceiling hostage standoff -- and have a laundry list of demands they expect to be met before they start deliberately punishing the country.

What they don't have is credible leadership. The caucus has fractured badly, but there's no one to step up, calm the waters, and keep House Republicans on a responsible course -- at least no one GOP lawmakers themselves consider credible.

In theory, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) would hold the reins, but Republicans clearly aren't listening to him anymore. In an odd twist, a senator is filling the vacuum.

On a Thursday conference call, a group of House conservatives consulted with Senator Ted Cruz of Texas about how to respond to the leadership's fiscal strategy. Sources who were on the call say Cruz strongly advised them to oppose it, and hours later, Speaker John Boehner's plan fizzled.It's the latest example of Cruz leading the House's right flank.... Leadership sources, for their part, are startled by Cruz's attempt to shape House strategy and work against the speaker. They knew he'd oppose Boehner's playbook, but they didn't expect him to huddle with conservatives and ask them to ignore it. So, Cruz's meetings have made him a key House player, but they've worsened his already-fraught relationship with the leadership.

I imagine this sounds like inside-baseball to those who don't follow Capitol Hill closely, but it's a pretty remarkable turn of events. Forget the process and the machinations, and focus instead on the power-play.

Who's helping guide conservative lawmakers in the House? It's not their own House Speaker, who ostensibly leads their caucus. Rather it's a U.S. senator -- whose entire congressional career has spanned about eight months -- who's instructing GOP lawmakers to ignore their own leadership.

If there's a modern precedent for this dynamic, I can't think of it.

More from the National Review piece:

The private call came together after Boehner unveiled his strategy at a Republican conference meeting earlier this week. Boehner's plan -- to focus on a debt-limit package, rather than a drawn-out CR battle -- made many conservatives uneasy. As they mulled a response, they reached out to Cruz.On the call, Cruz told them that Boehner was making a mistake, and urged his friends to fight until the end on the CR. The group agreed, and they complained that Boehner's shift to the debt limit was a diversion. [...]By the call's end, there was a consensus: until the CR talks are complete, Republicans should whip "no" on Boehner's debt-limit plan, as a way of preventing the leadership from directing the strategy. And that's exactly what happened late Thursday afternoon: GOP whip Kevin McCarthy worked the floor, but couldn't find the votes for Boehner's debt-limit plan. After McCarthy reported back about the Cruz-inspired uprising, the leadership shelved it.

Three weeks ago, Boehner presented a proposal to avoid a government shutdown, and within 24 hours, his own members killed it. This week Boehner presented a different proposal on the debt ceiling, and within 24 hours, his own members killed that, too, because a right-wing senator told them it was a good idea to do so.

Last night, Cruz met again with House conservatives on how best to "pressure Boehner" and "force [Boehner's] hand."

Say hello to the new Speaker of the House. It's the junior senator from Texas.

Yes, I suppose that's a bit of an exaggeration, but the writing is clearly on the wall. The House Republican leadership would have us believe they're at odds with the White House, but at this point, John Boehner's biggest problem isn't Barack Obama, it's Ted Cruz.

There is, however, an easy solution if the Speaker has the strength to make the obvious call: he can easily set the far-right members free and cobble together 218 votes with a combination of less-unhinged Republicans and a fair number of Democrats.