At midnight, for the first time in 17 years, the federal government shut down. A game of legislative ping-pong continued into Tuesday morning as House Republicans sought to delay Obamacare and the Senate declined to follow suit. The ball was in the House’s court when the clock struck midnight. The lower chamber had voted to approve the latest GOP continuing resolution by a vote of 228-201 on Monday evening. Twelve Republicans voted against the bill, and nine Democrats voted for it. About a half an hour later, the Senate rejected the GOP continuing resolution and set it back to the House, making a shutdown inevitable. At the moment that the shutdown took effect, the House was debating a motion to go into conference with the Senate on the continuing resolution—a measure Majority Leader Harry Reid had already announced he would reject.
House Speaker John Boehner still can’t find an exit plan that can save the country from unnecessary grief, the Republican Party from what polls suggest is a losing tactic, and his job as leader. Conventional wisdom has it that Boehner is worried about his own skin, and that’s why he won’t support a “clean CR,” legislative speak for a continuing resolution to fund the government without attaching language to delay Obamacare.
On Monday afternoon, with the ball back in Boehner’s court, President Obama came to the White House briefing room to issue yet another of his stern statements to Congress. “You don’t get to exact a ransom for doing your job,” he said, “or because there’s a law here you don’t like.”
All it would take is Boehner working with Nancy Pelosi to get Democratic support for that clean CR. That would mean abandoning the so-called Hastert Rule, named after former House speaker Dennis Hastert, that no legislation is brought to the House floor without a majority of Republican votes. Boehner has violated the rule at least twice before, most recently to approve federal funds for the victims of Hurricane Sandy.
“Has anybody asked Denny Hastert, does he think the Hastert Rule should be applied in this case?” asks Vin Weber, a former Republican congressman. “Shutting down government and not compromising is antithetical to Denny. He was a workhorse. The main criticism of him as speaker [is] he wasn’t enough of a show horse. This is not how he ever would have reacted.”
Boehner is listening to a significant following within the GOP caucus who didn’t live through the 1995–96 shutdown and the damage it did to the Republican Party, Weber says. “He’s got to give time for pressure to build on the majority of the caucus to insist on a way out of this confrontation. Then it will be time to move. Maybe one more round,” Weber guesses. “Pressure is building in the Republican conference.”
Until now, the pressure on Republicans has come from the right and from outside organizations such as Heritage Action, Americans for Prosperity, and the Club for Growth, demanding they not compromise. Now that the shutdown has become a reality, Republicans will hear from a broader slice of the American people. Weber has known Boehner for more than 20 years and says he expects the speaker to make his move and waive the Hastert Rule once his caucus cries uncle. “It’s a mistake to look at anything Boehner’s doing as a desperation move to keep the speakership,” says Weber. “He’s been speaker, and he doesn’t feel particularly threatened.” Boehner has history on his side: no speaker has ever been forcibly removed. If he loses the confidence of his caucus, he would likely step aside, as former speaker Newt Gingrich did after Republicans lost seats in the 1998 midterm elections.
What is driving the speaker, say his allies, is holding the GOP conference together, coupled with concerns about who might succeed him in this hyperpartisan era, especially if that decision arises in the heat of the moment. “I think he worries about not just his own survival but the question of who would replace him, that it could be someone far more intransigent,” says Jack Pitney, a former Republican staffer who now teaches government at Claremont McKenna College. If the Hastert Rule, an invention of the 1990s, had been in effect when Ronald Reagan was president, Democratic Speaker Tip O’Neill would never have allowed key elements of the Reagan agenda to come to the floor with a majority of Democrats opposed, Pitney points out.
Boehner may find a life raft in an unpopular 2.3 percent tax on medical devices that has garnered bipartisan support, or a Hail Mary pass to put members of Congress and their staffs onto Obamacare, but Obama appears to be in no mood to negotiate with a gun to his head, and for now, Boehner looks as if he’s flailing. “I doubt there is any way he comes out of this stronger,” says Pitney. “The best he can hope for is survival.”
If the speaker survives, that would be a feat in itself and could give him a new lease on life, says Matt Bennett, co-founder of the centrist Democratic group Third Way. “If he comes out of this having passed both government funding and the debt ceiling, and kept his job, he will have stared down the rabble-rousers in his conference and proved he can do things that defy them ... The question is, does he have the guts and political capital to do this?”
The assumption is that Boehner will make his move now that his rebellious caucus has gotten its way, if only for a short time. There have been 17 partial shutdowns since 1977, most lasting a few days, and life went on. If it weren’t for the looming fight over the debt ceiling, a continuing resolution that’s good for maybe six weeks, and the prospect of doing this all over again in November, everybody could sit back and enjoy the table tennis, and soon we’d move on. But this is more like the Titanic, and what we’re seeing on Capitol Hill, says Bennett, is “a very large tip of an even bigger iceberg.”