So, what was it all for?
Nothing. Two weeks of government shutdown, the country brought to the brink of disaster, an estimated $24 billion wasted, for nothing.”If we’re able to stop Obama on this, it will be his Waterloo. It will break him.”
—Jim DeMint, in 2009It was supposed to be about Obamacare.
Republicans, at long last, would give President Obama his Waterloo. The plan was months in the making: threaten to destroy the country unless the president’s signature health care plan is defunded.
Timing can be a real bastard, though. Government funding expired the same day the Affordable Care Act exchange opened for business – and funding for the ACA is already in place, so it went forward despite the shutdown. First point on the board: Republicans hate Obamacare so much, they shut down everything except Obamacare.
The rollout, of course, was a flaming disaster. The masses descended on healthcare.gov
and found a broken mess instead of the health care they’d been promised. It would have been the top story – Obamacare is broken!
– but it was buried by the shutdown, and the people who noticed thought it wasn’t working because the Republicans had shut down the government.“There are not the votes in the House to pass a clean CR.”
Senator Ted Cruz had kicked things off the way so many of these fights begin, with a reading of Green Eggs And Ham
on the Senate floor. But it all came down to one man: House Speaker John Boehner.
Republicans and their running dogs tried with all their might to blame President Obama – he won’t negotiate! He won’t compromise!
– but he had done both. He had totally caved, in fact, agreeing to the Republican budget level, not even trying to settle on a middle-ground, but that wasn’t enough for the Republicans. It wasn’t Waterloo. It wouldn’t break him. So Mr. Boehner blocked the Senate resolution from coming to the floor, even though it had enough support to pass. And people noticed.
All the House Democrats and enough Republicans stood ready to vote for the Senate CR, and people noticed.
They noticed that John Boehner, individually, personally, could end the shutdown any time he wanted, by simply letting democracy work the way it’s supposed to. The clean CR can’t pass, he insisted, all evidence to the contrary.
Mr. Boehner had a dilemma. The radical Tea Party members of his caucus could, if they didn’t get what they wanted, start a coup and have him removed as speaker. It wouldn’t take many lost votes to deprive him of his majority, and relying on Democrats to save him would be equally humiliating. But if he let the government default, the ensuing disaster could end his speakership anyway. A narrow path to tread.“The Park Service should be ashamed of themselves.”
—Rep. Randy Neugebauer (R-TX)
Republicans accused the president of political games, for closing the parks and memorials
they’d voted to close. They lambasted park rangers. They helped people bypass barricades. They protested their own government shutdown. Mr. Boehner tried passing narrow measures to open the popular parts of the government, but no one fell for the “shut it down except the parts we like” ploy.
They tried to pin it on Harry Reid, the Senate majority leader. “He won’t pass the perfectly good House bills!” they cried, despite Boehner’s own refusal to allow a vote on the Senate CR. Hypocrisy at its finest, and the polls were looking grim for the Republicans.“We’re on a fool’s errand when we say we’re going to defund Obamacare.”
—Sen. John McCain (R-AZ)
It soon became clear that the president and the Senate weren’t going to throw Obamacare on the scrap heap of history, and so the goalposts began to move. What if we just delay it for a year? No?
Then came the individual mandate. How about delaying that for a year? But the president was having none of it. Threatening damage to the country to get a law repealed that you can’t repeal the right way? No, you don’t get to do that. It wasn’t long before Obamacare was off the table.“We’re not going to be disrespected. We have to get something out of this. And I don’t know what that even is.”
—Rep. Marlin Stutzman (R-IN)
Next on the table: repealing a medical device tax, something many Democrats were willing to entertain – but not with a gun to their heads. Repealing a tax no one outside the medical device industry cares about would be hard to sell as a victory, but it would be something, right? They had to get something.
It didn’t much matter what. A shorter debt limit extension, so we can do this again at Christmas, perhaps? A longer commitment to sequestration?
Something other than total concession to the Republican budget level, that is: something they could have sold as a major victory if only they’d tried.
“I said earlier that I felt you had lost your minds. I no longer feel it. I know it. You all have lost it.” —Rep. Alcee Hastings (D-FL)
The deadline looming, victory slipping away, their poll numbers at record lows, the Republicans begin desperately looking around for someone, anyone, to take health care away from. They found, sitting just across the room, their own staffers.
“Oi! You lot! What have you ever done to deserve health care?”
And so came the Vitter Amendment,
stripping members of Congress and their staff, along with the president and his staff, of their employer contribution for health insurance. A big pay cut, especially for junior staffers making $30-40k a year.
Bizarrely, that was now what it was about: Republicans would blow up the country
unless they were allowed to screw over their own staff. But the president said he would veto any such bill.
Finally, Mr. Boehner and his team had a bill they could get behind: reopen the government for six months at sequestration funding levels, delay the medical device tax, demand income verification for health care subsidies, and call for a budget conference. But wait: the bill would also forbid Treasury from using so-called “extraordinary measures” to avoid a debt default. That’s right: they wanted to make it easier
to have a default in the future. This was it! The president had to cave! Boehner had his path to victory!
But no. The bill was pulled at the last minute because he couldn’t find the votes in his own caucus
to pass the damn thing. It wasn’t good enough for the radicals, and wouldn’t pass muster with the Democrats, either. Boehner’s hopes were dashed. Even Heritage Action and the Koch brothers had abandoned ship.“This is a terrible deal.”
—Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX)
And so it was back to the Senate.
Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell, the minority leader, sat down and came up with a bill to fund the government through January 15, and suspend the debt limit until February 7. What do the Republicans get? A promise that the administration will look at income verification for health care subsidies, which is already part of Obamacare, and a promise of a budget conference, which the Democrats want anyway. That’s it.
It was enchilada night at Tortilla Coast, a restaurant on the Hill, and Ted Cruz convened a meeting of his wingnut caucus there to discuss their next move. Filibuster the deal? Try to amend it to dismantle Obamacare?
Nothing came of the Tortilla Coast Revolution. Mr. Cruz may have started all this, but he wouldn’t be finishing it. In the end, nothing remained of the Republican demands – they didn’t even get their coup against Speaker John Boehner, who, after all, fought to the bitter end.“We fought the good fight, we just didn’t win.”
When it was all over, Mr. Boehner gathered the boys, the loyalists, in the lounge. He asked his assistant to fetch some Lagavulin, glasses, and ice – the same assistant whose health benefits he’d just tried to take away. She brought him a jug of Jim Beam and a stack of Dixie cups. The Lagavulin would flow in the staff lounges that night.
“Cheer up,” he said, choking down a swig of cheap bourbon. “I won. I’m still the Speaker.”
Eric Cantor stared awkwardly at his Dixie cup. That’s
what it was all for?