Washington Heads to the Fiscal Brink

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Yesterday, budget negotiations between the Obama administration and Senate Republicans broke off. The Obama-Senate talks were already a backup plan to avert the various crises arrayed before Washington this fall. Plan A would be direct negotiations between Obama and House Republicans, but John Boehner took that off the table by promising suspicious conservatives he would not negotiate with the president. Plan B involved negotiations between Obama and Republicans in the Senate, in the hopes they could work out a deal that, after the clock had ticked down to midnight, could serve as a template for compromise. The backup plan has failed, and now brinksmanship over the debt ceiling and a government shutdown appears to be the only remaining scenario.

The failure of the negotiations itself is less frightening than the reasons the negotiations failed. The main, proximate cause is substantive. The two sides can’t agree on policy — or, to put it in a less even-handed but more accurate way, Republicans refuse to compromise on policy. Republicans have demanded cuts to popular social insurance programs but won’t accede to any form of higher tax revenue in return.

But the more fundamental problem may be that Republicans find the process of negotiation itself too risky. Boehner has promised a “whale of a fight” over the debt ceiling. This is an odd way to position the party. Public opinion in a crisis showdown is likely to side with the party that looks more reasonable. Boehner is broadcasting his belligerence. He’s doing this because compromise is in and of itself unacceptable to the base.

Byron York recently traveled with Ted Cruz to New Hampshire and identified the core of his appeal to the party base: He appeals to the belief among conservatives that the congressional party keeps selling out to Obama. Cruz offers them the promise of a politician who will “stand up against not only Barack Obama but against all those old, entrenched Republicans who aren’t up for the fight.”

York’s story does not contain any examples of issues where Republican leaders in Congress have sold out conservatives to go along with Obama, because no such examples exist. But what looks from the outside like a record of perfect obstruction, from stimulus to health care to the Grand Bargain, looks on the inside like a record of appeasement and surrender.

Jonathan Strong — like York, a conservative reporter — shows what the House Republican debate looks like from the inside in a National Review story on “the Jedi Council.” This is a somewhat informal cabal of House Republicans, including Paul Ryan and various ultraconservative leaders who have revolted against Boehner. This is the group coordinating the push among House Republicans to force Boehner to adopt maximalist demands in return for lifting the debt ceiling and keeping the government open.

The Jedi Council looks an awful lot like a government-in-waiting for if and when Boehner fails to satisfy his ultra wing. (Strong raises this very prospect — “Some leadership aides,” he reports, “ask whether the Jedi Council is designing the next debt-ceiling fight to culminate in a challenge to Boehner’s speakership” only to weakly refute it.) Indeed, “Jedi Council" is an awfully strange name for a gang of compulsively belligerent mutineers committed to extortion. They might want to look elsewhere in the seventies cinematic scene for the appropriate comparison:

Photo: Paramount

In any case, “the Jedi Council” reflects the ultraconservatives' view of themselves, as calm, wise figures of conciliation. Within the House Republican Party, where the debate ranges from demands for destroying the Affordable Care Act permanently on the right to merely destroying it in stages on the left, this may indeed be true.

This shows how far the ultras have yanked the strategic argument within the party. Establishment Republicans have forcefully pushed back against the demands by ultraconservatives that the House refuse to reopen the federal government unless Obama agrees to shutter his health-care reform. But they have merely settled on using the even more explosive threat of a debt default in its place.

Meanwhile, the old-fashioned idea of actually meeting Obama in the middle is completely off the grid. The president offered up a compromise budget plan last winter, including cuts to Medicare and Social Security in return for squeezing tax deductions. Nobody in the Republican Congress has come close to accepting this, nor to offering a plausible compromise of any sort, even though it ought to be very easy to imagine a policy change that would, from a conservative perspective, be both acceptable to Obama and better than sequestration. The moderates within the party are busily planning its post-Obama future — see, for instance, this column by Reihan Salam — while ignoring the apocalyptic damage the party is preparing to unleash in the here and now.