There is more than just temporary pain at stake here. As the GOP’s factions duke it out, Republicans are filling in the caricature of dysfunction the president has sketched for voters. Republicans are throwing around terms like "suicide note" to describe their own party’s strategy. The Wall Street Journal editorial page calls it a “kamikaze” strategy. Sen. Bob Corker seemed to have no doubt that Sen. Ted Cruz was still backing this strategy when he made a not-so-veiled dig at Cruz, who attended Princeton and Harvard. "I didn't go to Harvard or Princeton, but I can count—the defunding box canyon is a tactic that will fail and weaken our position." (The term "box canyon" was most recently used in conservative circles to describe the hapless president.) This is not only an unpleasant airing of Republican differences, but it also suggests that it may be a lot harder for the GOP to come together to fight against Obama on the coming debt ceiling the longer this slugfest continues.
Cruz is getting it from both sides. His Republican colleagues say his support of the defund adventure is about nothing but his presidential ambitions. In the House, though, his fellow travelers think he’s chickening out. After the House’s hardline conservatives put on their chin straps and signed on to this exciting play, Cruz issued a press release that seemed to suggest he wasn’t going to do much to buck the reality that the Senate is controlled by Democrats. After all that time judging the manhood of other Republicans, Cruz wasn’t going to mount a talking filibuster, camp outside Majority Leader Harry Reid’s office, or do something to back up his House colleagues? “House agrees to send #CR to Senate that defunds Obamacare. @SenTedCruz & @SenMikeLee refuse to fight. Wave white flag and surrender,” tweeted Rep. Sean Duffy of Wisconsin.
Republicans might appear to be able to quickly unlock themselves from this bind. Boehner could simply ignore the House’s conservative crusaders, gather some Democratic support, and pass a funding measure that would avoid a shutdown. There are two reasons he won’t do this. The first is that Boehner doesn't want to risk a revolt that might threaten his position as House speaker.
The second reason may be more controlling. The minute Boehner allows Democrats to know he needs them to pass anything, he will start getting demands from them. Anything that would win Democratic votes would lose Republican votes—including Boehner's, because at bottom, the House speaker does want to shrink the government in a way that is fundamentally at odds with a near-majority of the Democratic conference.
That is why Boehner and his GOP leaders are in such a fix. He's stuck pursuing a strategy he doesn't like but that represents the least bad option. That sure sounds familiar. That's the way people described Obama's anemic approach to military action in Syria two weeks ago. Boehner has backed a plan to shut down the government unless Obamacare is defunded, but he doesn’t want the notion of a shutdown to enter anyone's mind. "There should be no conversation about shutting the government down. That's not the goal here, our goal is to cut spending and to protect the American people from Obamacare," said Boehner on Wednesday. OK, but the only thing that is going to make that happen is the threat of the shutdown, but it's not much of a threat if you say it's the one thing you're trying to avoid. You can't play a game of chicken when you've pulled over to the side of the road.
Where this goes from here is not clear. The Senate will not accept the House bill, so it will send a “clean” funding bill back to the House stripped of the Obamacare poison. In the most optimistic GOP view, the “hello no” caucus will learn that this was a bootless effort and they will sign on to whatever Boehner cooks up to keep the government doors open. Is this group of conservatives really going to change their mind? What will cause them to do so? The constituents back home who have been cheering their fight to defund Obamacare? The increased condescension that the New York Times editorialists use when describing them? A stock market plunge?
If the loss doesn’t get Boehner the votes he needs, he will then have no other choice but to turn to Democrats for votes to avoid a shutdown. That won’t be pretty, because Democrats will exact a price against the backdrop of the ticking clock. (If you are counting at home, there are only 12 days until the government technically runs out of money).
A government funding mechanism that passes with Democratic votes will excite some sharp comments from the very group that Boehner is having trouble satisfying. And this is just the scrimmage before the big game. Republicans will need to be unified before the debt limit fight in mid-to-late October. If the government shutdown is bad for the economy, the debt ceiling fight is catastrophic.
In the debt limit fight, Boehner wants to push for a one-year pause on enforcing the Obamacare individual mandate, arguing that it’s only fair given that Obama has frozen the portion of the bill that affects businesses with more than 50 employees.* But the president has said he won’t negotiate on the debt limit at all. He isn’t even picking up the phone. Why talk to Republicans when they are busy tearing themselves apart?
Correction, Sept. 22, 2013: This article originally stated that Obama froze the portion of the bill that affected small businesses. That portion was to affect businesses with more than 50 employees.