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“Republicans Take The Less Risky Path”: The Budget Passes! Has The GOP Congress Come To Its Senses?

The news that the House passed a budget that will fund the government through next fall, and the Senate quickly followed suit, is in and of itself a big deal. But the fact that the bill passed so easily — on a vote of 316-113 in the House, with Republicans voting in favor of it by a margin of 150-95 — may be the really interesting story here.

Is the GOP Congress not what we thought it was? Is the way liberal commentators (myself included) have characterized the Republican caucus in the House over the last couple of years, as a group dominated by extremists who are willing to burn down everything in their path, an oversimplification?

It just may be. But let’s look at some competing explanations for why this budget passed so easily:

Paul Ryan is a genius. Perhaps this is all Paul Ryan’s doing, so deftly did he work his members to corral support for this bill. There’s something to that — there were specific steps he took to make all his members feel like they had a voice in the process, and even some of the most conservative members have praised his openness to their input.

But there are a couple of reasons to think that this explanation is incomplete at best. First, it suggests that the crises and intra-Republican battles of the last few years occurred only because John Boehner was inept at managing the more restive parts of his caucus. While no one is going to suggest that Boehner was some kind of legislative sensei, the members who forced those crises weren’t doing it just because they disliked Boehner. They were acting out of their own ideological and electoral interests, many because they saw their political fortunes in their own districts tied to the idea that they would be uncompromising in fighting both Barack Obama and their party’s leadership.

Second, this bill really was a compromise. It doesn’t defund Planned Parenthood, it doesn’t reduce the size of government, and it gives Democrats plenty of other things they wanted as well. Republicans in the House weren’t going to go along with it for no reason other than the fact that they got to sit down with the new Speaker and voice their complaints. So while they may feel better about Ryan than they did about Boehner, that can’t be the whole story.

They realized that making a fuss only raises expectations. The key dynamic in Republican politics these days comes from voter dissatisfaction with the party’s leaders, who have repeatedly promised to fight President Obama to their dying breath but has been unable to deliver on any of their substantive goals, like repealing the Affordable Care Act. Smarter Republican members may realize that shutdown crises only serve to increase this dissatisfaction, because they inevitably end in defeat for the conservatives. Even the angriest tea partier could eventually face a primary challenger who points out that the congressman didn’t succeed in stopping the march of socialism, no matter how often he shook his fist at his party’s leadership. So the less risky path might be to let the bill pass, keep the government running, and hope that nobody takes much notice of it.

There’s a silent (or at least relatively quiet) majority of Republicans in the House. Let’s not forget that 95 Republicans did vote against the bill, including the most conservative ones. In the past, the conservatives (or the tea partiers, or the Freedom Caucus, or however you want to refer to them) were only able to create crises and shutdowns because they were able to bring slightly less crazy members along with them. So it isn’t that the extreme conservatives have gotten any less extreme; what made the difference this time is that the merely very conservative members were no longer willing to set fire to the Capitol.

Those members in the ideological middle of the caucus (which, to be clear, is a very conservative place) can sound like tea partiers when the situation demands, but they are also realistic enough to know that some battles aren’t worth fighting. They certainly feel pressure from their right, but they may have learned from the mistakes of the past. And right now, as we move into 2016, the calculation of which risks are worth taking has changed. Which leads us to the final explanation:

The presidential race has changed everything. As I’ve been arguing since the last midterm election, congressional Republicans didn’t really need to “show they can govern.” What they needed to do was avoid screwing things up for their eventual 2016 presidential nominee. The reason is simple: if a Republican wins the White House next year, 2017 will see a bacchanal of conservative legislating that will leave no Republican desire unfulfilled. Trying to extract a few concessions from Barack Obama today is spectacularly foolish if it makes Republicans look bad and thereby reduces the chances of electing a Republican president by even the tiniest amount. The best strategy for congressional Republicans is to do no harm, and be patient.

With the presidential primary campaign now in full swing, that reality may be hitting home for more and more members of Congress. So even the most conservatives ones aren’t going to try to force a shutdown. Instead, they’ll vote against the budget bill, and when a reporter asks they’ll say, yes, of course it’s a surrender to Obama and a betrayal of conservative values, blah blah blah. But in their hearts, they probably realize that at this particular moment, passing the budget is the smart move.

So which one of these explanations is the right one? The answer may be different for different members, but I’m pretty sure they all played a role.

 

By: Paul Waldman, Senior Writer, The American Prospect; Contributor, The Plum Line Blog, The Washington Post, December 18, 2015

December 21, 2015 - Posted by | Budget, GOP Establishment, House Freedom Caucus, Senate | , , , , , , ,

2 Comments »

  1. This is good news. I guess Paul Ryan will run in 2020.

    Like

    Comment by renxkyoko | December 21, 2015 | Reply

  2. Boehner deserves some credit for greasing the skids. I give kudos to Boehner and Ryan on this and hope it is not anomaly. We also got a long overdue transportation bill and an education bill passed.

    Like

    Comment by Keith | December 21, 2015 | Reply


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