The Republicans’ Moment of Truth

We’re going to learn a lot about the post-election GOP this weekend, says Michael Tomasky.

Win McNamee / Getty

Barack Obama sounded reasonably confident Friday evening that a deal can still be reached. But it’s his job to sound optimistic, and not to anger Mitch McConnell and John Boehner. Happily, that’s not part of my portfolio, so I’m free to say that the question that still looms over the eleventh-hour fiscal cliff negotiations this weekend is a simple one: Will McConnell and Boehner allow votes on any last-minute deal? A more emphatic way of phrasing it is, will they finally put the country ahead of their party for a change, and ahead of their party’s unaltered view that any posture toward Obama other than belligerence equals capitulation to an enemy? That’s all that matters here. They both have the power to permit a deal, at least on taxes. The question is whether they’ll allow it. We’re going to learn a lot about the post-election Republican Party this weekend.

Let’s start with McConnell. Obama said Friday night that McConnell and Harry Reid were working on the details of deal that both could agree on. Well, that would be peachy, but count me skeptical, and a bit mystified as to what that deal would be. Would McConnell really be willing to raise taxes on dollars earned above, say, $400,000, the compromise figure mentioned lately? That’s a violation of the “principle” of no new taxes as surely as the $250,000 level is. I’m not sure why McConnell would suddenly be open to this. Maybe the prospect of having to face Ashley Judd in November 2014 worries him a little more than he’s letting on.

But even if he is, then we must ask about the other 46 Republicans. Matters can come to the Senate floor for a quick vote only under a “unanimous consent” rule, which means that every single senator needs to agree to allow it to do so. One senator can say no and end the whole process. Rand Paul, Mike Lee, and several others are obviously prime candidates to object to unanimous consent. McConnell could prevent such moves if he really wants to. So let’s see if he does.

More dramatically, of course, there’s the question of the filibuster. As I assume you know, any bill needs 60 Senate votes, not a simple majority of 51, to end debate and proceed to a final up-or-down vote. The Republicans, now numbering 47, could filibuster anything they wish. And in this particular case, there’s an extra wrinkle. Under Senate rules, debate on any matter starts to wind toward its end when a “cloture motion” is filed, a petition signed by 16 senators expressing the wish to end debate. From that moment, the rules call for 30 more hours of debate (read this if you’re interested in all this). As of Saturday morning, there are only 72 hours left in the year. But since senators need to sleep and eat and raise money, and since every hour is not a working hour, it’s possible that the year could end before the cloture clock runs out.

In other words: McConnell can negotiate in quasi-good faith with Reid up to a point, but only up to a point. If his crazies rise up against him, they have any number of ways of blocking progress, and he can say, “Hey, it wasn’t me, I did what I could,” and he walks away.

The Boehner situation is even worse. Let’s say that by some miracle, a deal passes the Senate quickly. Then it comes to the House for a vote, right?

Wrong. It comes to the House for a vote if Boehner decides to permit a vote. But he and the Republicans operate under the “Hastert Rule,” announced by then-Speaker Denny Hastert and now followed by Boehner, that no bill can come to the floor of the House unless it has the support of “a majority of the majority,” or a majority of Republicans. Obviously, any deal approved by Obama and Reid will not get that level of support, even with McConnell’s imprimatur.

I wrote about this in early December, predicting that this unwritten (and unspoken, at least by Boehner) rule would prove to be the real killer, and I see no reason to think I’m wrong, especially with the vote for the next House speaker looming on January 3. If Boehner were to permit a Senate- and Obama-approved bill to come to the House floor, and if somehow it were to pass with about 190 Democrats and 30 Republicans (a big if, that latter number), the right-wing fury against him would be boundless, and he could kiss his speakership goodbye.

So this all falls entirely on the shoulders of McConnell and Boehner. Obama, if The New York Times scoop was right yesterday about the new terms he put on the table, has done plenty of compromising, especially for the guy who won the election. Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi are behind him. So the Democrats are ready to play ball.

The only thing the Republicans are ready to play, as usual, is roulette, with the cocked gun against the country’s temple, unfortunately, and not their own. It’s worth taking a moment in this context to consider: Never have the priorities for survival and success of a major party’s Washington politicians been so utterly at odds with the priorities required for the country’s survival and success. These Washington Republicans represent the one-third of the country that hates government, despises Obama, and considers obstruction victory.

The rational two-thirds wants compromise, good-faith bargaining, higher taxes on the wealthy, a reasonably strong safety net, and lower defense spending. But the obstructionist one-third wants the opposite. McConnell and Boehner aren’t ideologically committed to that one-third in the way that Jim DeMint and Paul Ryan are, but so far, they have never once stood up to it for the country’s sake. We’ll find out this weekend who they really are.