Friday, the Republican leadership in the House of Representatives — expressing an anger that appeared to be have been carefully cultivated for the occasion — tried to persuade the American people that the current political crisis is solely the fault of President Obama and the Democratic leadership in the Senate.
“This isn’t some damn game,” House Speaker John Boehner vigorously declared as he waved a copy of a newspaper that had declared the Republicans were losing the bitter battle on Capitol Hill.
No, it’s not a game, but that won’t stop the American people from concluding who’s to blame for the crisis that has shut down their government. And even thoughtful Republicans recognize which way the wind is blowing.
“Fighting with the president is one thing,” Sen. Roy Blunt, Republican of Missouri, told reporters. “Fighting with the president and losing is another thing. When you’re in the minority you need to look really hard to find the fights you can win.”
The centerpiece of the debate is the Affordable Care Act, which was passed by both houses of Congress before voters handed President Obama a second term. Ever since, Republican hard-liners have been calling it “Obamacare” as if that’s a dirty word, and they’ve tried multiple times, unsuccessfully, to kill it.
“This is a huge distraction,” Gov. Bill Haslam of Tennessee, a Republican, observed with credible accuracy. “Instead of that being the conversation, we’re talking about the government shutdown, and the average citizen can’t help but say the Republican Congress isn’t helping.”
If that’s true, Boehner doesn’t want Americans to see it that way. He complains that Obama refuses to negotiate, but why would he do that when his political foes will settle only for an agreement to defund the health care law?
The New York Times reported Friday that there had been a private luncheon Wednesday at which several Senate Republicans, including Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, sharply criticized Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, who has been leading the drive to block funding for the health law.
“Ms. Ayotte was especially furious, according to two people present, and waved a printout from a conservative group friendly to Mr. Cruz attacking 25 of his fellow Republican senators for supporting a procedural vote that the group counted as support of the health law,” the report said.
“Ms. Ayotte asked Mr. Cruz to disavow the group’s effort and demanded he explain his strategy,” it continued. “When he did not, several other senators — including Mr. Johnson, Mr. Coats and even Mitch McConnell, the minority leader — joined in the criticism of Mr. Cruz.”
Cruz, the freshman senator from Texas who appears to have presidential ambitions, may be the most widely disliked politician on Capitol Hill, but he has the strong support of tea party stalwarts and others on the far right of America’s political spectrum.
What’s different about these Republicans is their unwillingness to bargain, Vanderbilt University public policy professor Bruce Oppenheimer told the BBC, adding, “I’m not sure if it’s because they lack government experience or they’ve made such strong promises to their constituencies, but they’ve put their feet in cement and can’t or won’t move.”
Ryan Lizza of the New Yorker examined their home districts and found that these representatives reflect the views of the voters who elected them and they “represent an America where the population is getting whiter, where there are few major cities, where Obama lost the last election in a landslide, and where the Republican Party is becoming more dominant and more popular.”
“Meanwhile, in national politics, each of these trends is actually reversed,” Lizza added.
Despite all his bluster, there are signs Boehner may be preparing to embrace a more practical strategy that could end the impasse. Some of his GOP colleagues say Boehner won’t permit the country to default on its debt and that Republicans in the House must come up with an agreement that can attract significant Democratic support.
“This needs to be a big bipartisan deal,” one Boehner ally explained. “This is much more about the debt ceiling and a larger budget agreement than it is about Obamacare.”
Friday’s carefully staged show of anger suggests that Boehner and his colleagues may finally recognize they’re losing the battle and need to burnish their image, but the damage has been done.
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