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The Republicans Are Starting to Reek of Desperation

House Republican leaders are starting to look pretty desperate. Their latest gambit, as reported in National Review and Politico, and analyzed by my colleague Noam Scheiber, is to fuse negotiations over funding the government with negotiations over raising the debt ceiling and then—yes, there’s a third part—start negotiations over some kind of “grand bargain” on fiscal policy. Somehow this is supposed to break the current impasse.

The reporting on exactly what Republican leaders have in mind is a little sketchy. I’m guessing that’s because Republican leaders haven’t figured it out themselves. The fiscal standoff has taught us two things: House Speaker John Boehner has no control over his caucus and no long-term political strategy, other than to stop Tea Party Republicans from deposing him. Remember, Boehner knows that shutting down the government was a bad idea and that allowing the federal treasury to default would be a much, much worse idea. He has said so explicitly. And yet here he is, shutting down the government and threatening to allow a default if Democrats won’t agree to undermine Obamacare. Every move Boehner has made in the last few days has reeked of panic. This talk of a new grand bargain does too. It’s not clear whether the propsoal is something Paul Ryan’s staff has been working up over the last few days or something Boehner thought up while he was in the shower one morning. Like the rest of you, I figure I’ll learn the answer when National Review's Robert Costa reports it, since he seems to know more about what Republicans are doing than anybody else—including the Republicans.

For the record, there is absolutely nothing crazy about a grand bargain. We should have one! Right now, the deficit is coming down but in a less-than-ideal way. Budget sequestration is indiscriminately cutting domestic spending, which is already at historic lows. A more sensible strategy would stop those cuts and, instead, reduce the deficit with a modest combination of tax increases and well-designed entitlement cuts. If Republicans are serious about wanting to work out such an agreement, I’m sure President Obama and the Democrats would be very happy to discuss it, just as soon as Republicans stop holding government funding and the economy hostage. Democratic budget proposals include versions of these ideas and leave ample room for negotiation.

But such negoatition would have to give-and-take, rather than just take, and that’s always been the problem. Democrats can accept entitlement cuts but Republicans can’t accept revenue. It’s hard to see why that would change now—or why the Ted Cruz wing of the Republican Party would find this an acceptable substitute for their current demands. Their idea of compromise is to kill Obamacare softly (by delaying the individual mandate) rather than loudly (by repealing it outright). Chained CPI is supposed to make them go away happy? I don’t get it.

And I don’t want to get it. The other big development yesterday was the subtle, but palpable sense among even some Tea Party lawmakers than they had lost the fight on the health care law. Apparently this hasn't diminished their determination to get concessions from Obama. It’s simply made them less picky about what those concessions are. In a remarkable statement to the Washington Examiner, Representative Martin Stutzman of Indiana said “We’re not going to be disrespected. We have to get something out of this. And I don’t know what that even is.” 

Herein lies the real cause of the crisis. Tea Party Republicans think they have a right to something—that, because they have the power to stop funding for the government and prevent the Treasury from paying its bills, they can demand major policy concessions. This is a gross violation of governing norms, for reasons Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne reminds us Thursday. Republicans got away with this once, in the summer of 2011. Democrats can’t let it happen twice. If the Tea Party thinks this is a legitimate strategy for changing policy, they’ll try it again. Obama, Harry Reid, and Nancy Pelosi understand this as well as anybody, which is why they’ve been united in their refusal to negotiate over anything but a “clean” bill to fund the government and won’t even discuss concessions in exchange for a higher debt ceiling. 

Lots of people seem to think the solution to this crisis is to find some face-saving compromise for Boehner—something he can take to his caucus as a victory, so that they will walk away quietly and he’ll get to remain as speaker. There's a certain logic to that: It's how these kind of disputes usually end. Perhaps such a deal could involve some vague nod in the direction of a Grand Bargain or some of its elements, along the lines that Noam suggests. Or perhaps it would involve a trade for something Norm Ornstein suggested in these pages a few ago: An agreement that would forever allow the president to raise the debt ceiling unilaterally. 

But in both cases, I think, the Tea Party would need to accept some degree of either defeat or disarmament. They still don’t seem ready to do that, which makes recent developments not only baffling but also a little scary.