For several months, we have been spared the drama of a manufactured fiscal crisis. That period of relative calm has allowed the stock market to reach new highs and the broader economy to show signs of improvement. So favorable an environment, however, may soon be coming to an end: there are two fiscal deadlines this fall that could precipitate a crisis brought on by an imminent or actual government shutdown. Those deadlines arise from the need for a continuing resolution to continue funding the government after September 30, and the need to raise the debt ceiling. If either deadline should in fact precipitate a crisis, the precise consequences are impossible to predict, but it is certain they will not be pleasant—for the country or for Republicans.
An earlier blog post described certain House Republicans as members of the ROC — the Republican Oozlum Caucus. The Oozlum, it was noted, is a mythical bird that flies in ever decreasing concentric circles until it flies up into itself, disappearing altogether. (See Special Bulletin: “I’d Rather Be a RINO than a ROC.”) It now appears that the Caucus has spread to the Senate and its flight plan is unchanged. The evidence of that woeful development lies in the fact that a dozen Senators have sent a letter to Majority Leader Harry Reid that threatens a government shutdown if funding for Obamacare is included in a continuing resolution. (Over sixty Republicans in the House have sent a similar letter to Speaker John Boehner.)
Threatening a shutdown in an attempt to “defund” Obamacare can be described most charitably as quixotic. As a technical matter, Senator Coburn has pointed out that excluding Obamacare from the continuing resolution would not void the law as most of its funding is mandatory and flows through other channels. Moreover, there is no chance that President Obama would sign any bill that defunds Obamacare in any respect. Nor would the public be likely to blame the President if a shutdown ensued at that point, or alternatively, if a refusal to raise the debt ceiling impaired the country’s credit. However unpopular Obamacare may be, shutting down the government or seriously disrupting the financial markets would be far more objectionable to the public. In short, the threat of the ROC is, as conservative columnist Jennifer Rubin has pointed out, an empty one.
The leader of the shutdown threat in the Senate is Senator Mike Lee of Utah who has been joined most prominently by Senators Ted Cruz and Rand Paul, whose eyes on 2016 have already taken them on jaunts to Iowa. Disappointingly, they have also been joined by Senator Marco Rubio, another potential hopeful for 2016. Senator Rubio, having recently been tarred (or, in our view, honored) as a RINO for his work on immigration reform, is now apparently scrambling to restore his credentials as a Tea Party favorite. The other Senators who signed the letter included James Risch of Idaho, James Inhofe of Oklahoma, David Vitter of Louisiana, John Thune of South Dakota, Mike Enzi of Wyoming, Deb Fischer of Nebraska, Chuck Grassley of Iowa and Jeff Chiesa of New Jersey.
Encouragingly, however, there have been signs of a spirited pushback by cooler heads among Republicans in both the Senate and the House. As reported by Reuters:
” ‘Oh, I think it’s a silly effort,’ Republican Senator Bob Corker told MSNBC on Tuesday. ‘What people are really saying who are behind that effort is we don’t have the courage to roll up our sleeves and deal with real deficit and spending decisions.’
“Corker joined moderate Republican Senators John McCain, Richard Burr, Lindsey Graham and Tom Coburn in sharply criticizing the defunding bid in recent days.
“Seven-term Republican Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah said he feared Republicans would look “feckless” in pushing a doomed legislative strategy that some Democrats simply describe as “hostage-taking.”
“Graham, another senior Republican voice, said the strategy by the Tea Party – a loose political movement that seeks lower taxes and a smaller federal government – was ‘a bridge too far.’ “
With respect to a hostage strategy in connection with the debt ceiling, Senator McCain was characteristically outspoken:
“Some of my Republican colleagues are already saying we won’t raise the debt limit unless there’s repeal of Obamacare. I’d love to repeal Obamacare, but I promise you that’s not going to happen on the debt limit. So some would like to set up another one of these shutdown-the-government threats. And most Americans are really tired of those kinds of shenanigans here in Washington.”
Senator Roy Blunt echoed McCain’s view in slightly less colorful terms, “I think holding the debt limit hostage to any specific thing is probably not the best negotiating place.”
Similarly, disapproval of the hostage strategy has been expressed by several senior Republicans in the House, including Appropriations Committee Chair Harold Rogers. And while John Boehner has not publicly taken a position, it has been reported that the leadership is “considering other options that they think are more effective.”
Predictably no doubt, resistance to the hostage strategy in the Senate and House has provoked a response from the Tea Party. According to the Wall Street Journal:
Two national tea-party organizations, Tea Party Patriots and ForAmerica, sent a letter this week to Senate Republicans threatening to make the defunding vote a litmus test for future support. “We are unable to support any elected official who votes in favor of continued funding,” the groups wrote.
Most RINOs will probably feel that, in general, litmus tests for political votes or positions are a bad idea, too often stigmatizing people or groups who simply have a different opinion. In this case, however, an exception may be justified, though not in quite the way intended by the tea-party groups. It may well be worthwhile to have a litmus test to single out the Oozlums bent on a reckless and destructive course, damaging to the economy and to the Republican Party along with it. They deserve, at the very least, to be pursued by a herd of angry RINOs.