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We Just Witnessed the Most Important Day in Politics All Year

Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Until the country came to be governed by serial brinksmanship, the writing and passage of annual spending bills weren’t huge stories in American politics, and you had to be unusually attuned to the content and the process to understand the political currents underlying both. When problems arose, there was always the palliative of earmarks to smooth things over.

But the narrow passage Thursday night of a big spending bill in the House of Representatives brought everything to the surface, even though the risk of a government shutdown was near zero.

Here are six things we learned from the raucous debate over the omnibus.

Elizabeth Warren is a bigger powerhouse than we thought.

That the omnibus was in any danger of failing at all was almost entirely attributable to Warren’s influence. Her mastery of the media is well understood, but she also demonstrated an ability to sway House members that no other Democratic senator has evinced.

Democrats are divided tactically.

Warren’s gambit was pretty straightforward. Republicans needed Democratic votes to pass the omnibus, so Democrats should use that leverage to shave a policy rider authored by Citibank lobbyists off of the bill. And with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi in her corner, she almost succeeded. Republicans nearly lost a key test vote on the bill, when Democrats voted overwhelmingly to send the bill back to the drafting table. If they’d prevailed—if GOP leaders hadn’t been able to flip that one last vote—Warren’s plan might have worked. But it didn’t. At that point the Democratic divisions surfaced. If Democratic leaders, and President Obama specifically, had decided to unite and take up Warren’s cause, they could have left it to Republicans to decide whether to demand a Wall Street rider as the cost of funding the government. Reasoning that Republicans would respond to such a power play not by agreeing to strip the rider, but by punting the fight into the new year, when they’ll control both the House and Senate, the White House decided not to issue a veto threat, and Warren’s efforts fizzled.

Democrats are substantively divided.

Once Obama laid down his cards, Warren’s strategy became untenable. With the White House on board for the omnibus, Warren and her allies were essentially hoping to blow up a done deal, and would have been blamed for an ensuing shutdown. But that didn’t mean Democrats abandoned their objections to the bill itself. They overwhelmingly voted against final passage. We learned that there is a large contingent of House Democrats willing to go to battle against Republicans and the White House if they cut bad deals.

Republicans mostly agree on one thing.

And that thing is that they shouldn’t shut the government down again. House Republicans were widely unhappy that House Speaker John Boehner didn’t use the funding bill as a staging ground for a fight with Obama over his deferred deportation program. They were widely unhappy that the omnibus didn’t harm Obamacare in any way. They were widely unhappy that it was drafted behind closed doors, and put to a vote before anyone had scoured its myriad provisions. Despite all that unhappiness, they voted for it overwhelmingly.

Obama’s priorities are clearer.

It’s true that, unlike in 2013, Republicans weren’t trying to use the threat of a shutdown to do something gonzo like defund Obamacare. But it’s also true that, in 2013, Obama proved he would not let Republicans use crucial governing deadlines to extract any unreciprocated concessions related to Obamacare. If Republicans had tried to tack something genuinely modest, like a repeal of the Affordable Care Act’s medical device tax, on to the omnibus, Obama would probably have threatened to veto it. He is not nearly as wedded to comparably marginal provisions of his Wall Street reform bill.

Democrats will thus have a hard time playing populist.

The survival of the derivative swaps rider comes as no surprise to anyone who understands Wall Street’s enormous influence on Capitol Hill. In a way, the only surprising thing is that it came so close to being defeated. But close isn’t really good enough. Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi have paid lip service to the idea that Democrats will use their perches in the minority to expose GOP coziness with Wall Street and prevent them from handing big financial institutions goodies like this. But they can’t succeed unless they know Obama has their back. Instead, he’s shown a willingness to deal on financial regulation that he hasn’t shown on issues like health care, deportation policy, and clean air rules. That augurs poorly for the congressional Democrats’ political strategy. And, more importantly, for the proposition that Dodd-Frank’s regulatory reforms would suffice where others insisted that structural changes on Wall Street are necessary.