As part of a last-minute messaging ploy after the government shutdown began, House Speaker John Boehner announced that he would shift all negotiations to a bipartisan conference of lawmakers, a plan rejected by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. “We will not go to conference with a gun to our head,” the Nevada senator said.
On the face of it, Reid and the Democrats are indulging in the obstructionism that Republicans have accused them of. But a look at the broader picture makes clear why Reid does not want to engage.
Recall this spring, when Senate Democrats, led by Washington Sen. Patty Murray, passed the chamber’s first budget in four years. The House followed suit with a proposal crafted by Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan. The two budgets were close to irreconcilable, with the former reflecting the priorities of the center-left of the Democratic Party and the latter a variation on the GOP agenda of the previous year.
With a budget completed in both chambers of Congress, the next step was a conference committee, where the two sides would make compromises and hash out differences. Given the wide gap in priorities, that was going to be difficult, but it’s what the GOP wanted. For the last two years, Republicans had been clamoring for a return to the normal budget process. “Continually governing by continuing resolution wastes money, creates massive inefficiencies, and can weaken our national security,” said Rep. Tom Graves (R-GA) in a letter urging Republican leaders to forgo reliance on temporary funding measures.
Democrats also were keen to go this route, and beginning in April, Murray made a request for conference, the next step in the budget process. It was filibustered by Senate Republicans. “Senate Republicans have now blocked our efforts to move to conference not once but twice,” said the budget chairman in May. “Some say they want a framework before going to conference, but that’s exactly what a budget is…There is no reason to wait.”
Senate Republicans, including Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, rejected every request for a conference, despite previously criticizing Democrats for not passing a budget.
And despite his rhetoric, Boehner seemed OK with the GOP senators’ strategy. As BuzzFeed’s John Stanton and Kate Nocera explained at the time: “Boehner is quietly content to let the Tea Party crusaders in the Senate keep the conference from taking place, acknowledging that if it ever does, House Republican bickering will once again be thrust into the national spotlight.”
Conservative Republicans, led by Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, also were concerned that a conference could result in an agreement on the debt ceiling, robbing them of their leverage in future fights. That means a faction of Republicans didn’t think they could win any legislative victories absent a threat to destroy the economy.
Their obstruction ensured that Congress would have to pass a short-term funding resolution in the fall. And it was further indication that Republicans were uninterested in making deals with the other side. Indeed, as Jonathan Chait notes, the first sign came in January, when House Republicans decided to boycott all negotiations with President Obama. Instead, following the playbook of the 2011 debt ceiling standoff, they would use the threat of default to force concessions, including a partial repeal of Obamacare, from the White House.
That was Boehner’s plan through the year. It’s a key part of why he allowed Tea Party members to derail the conference. But the shutdown is something of a sideshow, provoked by impatient conservatives who wanted confrontation. That it happened, however, shouldn’t be a surprise. By committing to crisis governance, Boehner encouraged right-wing lawmakers to demand more. The Gingrich shutdown haunts the GOP leadership, not the newer, more radical lawmakers in the caucus.
Democrats tried to conference in the summer and hammer out a deal on the budget. Republicans refused. To agree to a conference now—when there is no budget to negotiate, only a continuing resolution to approve—is to accept crisis governance as legitimate.