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The House GOP Is About to Crack Up: Three Theories Why

Lots of people think John Boehner has lost control of the House Republican caucus. Apparently John Boehner does, too.

On Wednesday, the speaker and his lieutenants had to stage yet another embarrassing retreat—this time, by postponing a vote on a “continuing resolution” that would fund government operations past September 30, when the current CR expires. Figuring out a way to pass such a bill has been one of Boehner’s biggest challenges for the last few weeks. And primarily that’s because the Republican Party's right wing insists on linking a CR to Obamacare. Both in the House and in the Senate, Tea Party Republicans and their allies want the president’s health care law off the books or, at the very least, delayed and defunded. If they don’t get their way, they say, they won’t vote for any CR—even if that means the federal government shuts down.

Most members of the Republican establishment think this strategy is nuts. Senate Democrats would never agree to undermine Obamacare, they note. And even if a few Senate Democrats went along, enough to get such a measure through the chamber, President Obama would never sign such a bill. It's his signature accomplishment and, for liberals, the biggest achievement since the Great Society. The shutdown that ensued would be bad for the country and, if the polls are right, most voters would blame the Republicans.

As of a few days ago, House leadership thought they’d come up with a solution: They’d pass a CR and include a provision to defund or delay Obamacare, but in a way that allowed the Senate to remove the Obamacare provision. The president would get a “clean” CR to sign, while congressional Republicans could tell their constituents and supporters they’d voted to get rid of Obamacare. Just to sweeten the deal, House leaders made sure the new CR would lock in lower levels of discretionary spending while bumping up defense spending—a position Obama and the Democrats oppose, but probably not enough to block such a proposal. House leaders also promised to stage a real, no-surrender fight on Obamacare later in October, when the federal government would need new authority to keep borrowing money.

Alas, the ploy failed—miserably. Michael Needham, chief executive officer of Heritage Action, called the leadership plan a "legislative gimmick" and warned, darkly, "it is our expectation that no conservative in Congress will try to deceive their constituents by going along with this cynical ploy." Over in the Senate, Texas Republican and conservative agitator Ted Cruz was equally hostile to the idea: “If House Republicans go along with this strategy, they will be complicit in the disaster that is Obamacare.” 

House Republican leadership didn’t appreciate the pressure, particularly from their Senate counterparts. And they didn't hide their dismay to reporters. “They’re screwing us,” a House Republican aide told Burgess Everett of Politico. Another aide responded to an inquiry from Kate Nocera, of Buzzfeed, with a video of Will Ferrell talking about "crazy pills." Yet another Republican staffer suggested to Roll Call's Matt Fuller that "Heritage Action and Club for Growth are slowly becoming irrelevant Neanderthals."

Neanderthals? Yes. Irrelevant? Not really. By Wednesday morning, according to National Review's Jonathan Strong, Boehner and his colleagues had tallied had just 200 “yes” votes in their internal counts. With House Democrats refusing to support a plan with such low spending levles, the leaders had no quick and easy way to get 217. And while aides assured reporters that the leadership just needed more time, an anecdote from Politico's Jake Sherman and John Bresnahan suggests Boehner was less confident:

A reporter asked [Boehner] whether he has a new idea to resolve the government funding fight. He laughed and said, “No.”

“Do you have an idea?” he asked the reporters. “They’ll just shoot it down anyway.”

He's probably right. And it makes you wonder why the right wing is making Boehner's life so difficult. Their explicit goal, getting rid of Obamacare, would seem to be out of reach. The political cost of pursuing that goal would seem to be high. Why keep at it?

Three theories come quickly to mind:

They are delusional. If you sincerely believe Obamacare will bankrupt the country, violate personal liberty, raise costs or ruin insurance for most Americans, and generally destroy American health care, then it’s easy to believe that it’s only a matter of time before the rest of the country demands repeal—forcing both Senate Democrats and the president to go along. It’s particularly easy to believe this if you live in the right-wing media bubble, where all of the reports about Obamacare focus on the law’s shortcomings and failures—insurance premiums going up, people losing coverage, part-time workers losing hours, and so on.

These stories offer a distorted picture of reality. While some are true, most are exaggerated and some are flat-out false. For the vast majority of people, Obamacare will change very little; and among those most directly affected, the presently uninsured and those who buy coverage on their own, there are going to be many more winners than losers. But you’d never know that if your primary sources of information are Fox News and the Wall Street Journal editorial page.

They are savvy. Maybe conservatives realize they can't dislodge Obamacare and are simply hoping for leverage. At some point, Congress is going to pass a CR. And, at some point, Congress is going to raise the debt ceiling. Perhaps the Tea Party wing figures that, by holding out until the last possible minute, they increase the likelihood the final deal for each debate is more to their liking. Most likely, as Brian Beutler has explained at Salon, that would mean agreements that cut non-defense spending and increases defense spending more than Democrats would like.

Of course, the strategy could backfire. The more Boehner must rely on Democratic votes to pass a bill, the more concessions on spending he must make. Nancy Pelosi, Steny Hoyer, and the rest of the Democratic leadership have made that very clear. But if you’re a Tea Party Republican, maybe you take your chances, figuring that even less extreme members of your caucus won’t support bills that tilt too far toward the Democrats—and Boehner won’t pass a bill without at least some Republican support. 

(For more insights into how this might all play out, see Jonathan Bernstein and Jonathan Chait—yes, that's quite a lot of Jonathan for one blog entry.)

They are selfish. Fiscal extortion may be bad for the Republican brand and it is certainly bad for the country. But is it bad for the likes of Ted Cruz and Heritage Action? I’m not so sure.

Every time they force leadership to change plans, they appear more powerful. Every time they rant about Obamacare, their supporters get more excited. It’s a self-reinforcing cycle—and also, I imagine, a profitable one. If you have watched cable television news lately, you’ve undoubtedly seen some of the anti-Obamacare ads. They’re everywhere. These ads don’t simply spread conservative propaganda; they also gin up the base. It’s no coincidence that many of the advertisements—a majority of them, as best as I can tell—end not with a plea to call your congressman but with an appeal for donations.

If you’re one of the people producing these advertisements, it’s really a no-lose proposition. No matter what eventually happens with the budget and Obamacare, you get more visibility and more money. The rest of your party may come to hate you. (Note the recent anonymous quotes describing these groups as “Neanderthals.”) And if things get out of hand, the country could really suffer. But none of that diminishes your standing with the base. If anything, it will probably enhance it.

* * *

Which theory best explains the right's behavior? Who knows. Probably all three have some truth. But the end result is the same. Conservatives seem determined to provoke a crisis, whether it's over funding the government past September 30 or increasing the Treasury's borrowing limit. If that happens, Boehner will face a choice. He can stand by while government services and the economy suffer—or, as Greg Sargent recently suggested, he can "cut the Tea Party loose, and suffer the consequences." Yes, the consequences might include Boehner losing his job as speaker. Those are the kinds of risks real leaders take, in order to serve the public.

Jonathan Cohn is a senior editor at the New Republic. Follow him on twitter @CitizenCohn

Note: This item has been updated for clarity.