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September 13, 2013 9:34 AM Throw Him an Anvil, Not A Life Preserver

By Ed Kilgore

If you read Jonathan Weisman’s piece in the New York Times today about the status of fiscal talks in Washington, you hear throughout an implicit cry for help from John Boehner:

With Congress momentarily freed from the Syrian crisis, lawmakers plunged back into their bitter fiscal standoff on Thursday as Speaker John A. Boehner appealed to the Obama administration and Democratic leaders to help him resolve divisions in the Republican ranks that could lead to a government shutdown by month’s end….
“It’s time for the president’s party to show the courage to work with us to solve this problem,” said Mr. Boehner, who argued that budget deals have been part of past agreements to raise the debt limit.
But a bloc of 43 House Republicans undercut the speaker’s deficit-reduction focus, introducing yearlong funding legislation that would increase Pentagon and veterans spending and delay President Obama’s health care law for a year — most likely adding to the budget deficit. That bloc is large enough to thwart any compromise that does not attract Democratic support.

So Boehner expects Democrats to help him out by supplying votes or other support for a “compromise” that could hold the vast majority of House Republicans, which means lower non-defense discretionary spending (offset perhaps by higher spending on defense) and some sort of substantive and/or symbolic concessions on Obamacare. All of this, of course, would be described as necessary to achieve the short-term deficit reduction goals that Boehner is virtually alone in Washington in considering central—even though Pentagon spending increases and delays in Obamacare implementation would cut in exactly the opposite direction.

Boehner cannot, on the other hand, ask for too much Democratic help—because he can’t abandon the Hastert Rule and pass crucial spending or debt limit bills with primarily Democratic votes. That would probably lose him his gavel. So he needs a “split” in the Democratic ranks, preferably one that he can describe as a revolt of terrified red-state Democrats fearing 2014. And he’s apparently convinced many of his fellow Republicans they can help engineer that split by being slightly less out of touch with reality:

One group of conservatives on Thursday pressed what they called a compromise: a one-year stopgap spending bill that would raise the debt ceiling for a year, delay all aspects of the health care law for a year, and give back some of the Pentagon cuts as a sweetener.
Backers insisted on Thursday that it was a package Mr. Obama should be able to accept. Representative Phil Gingrey, Republican of Georgia, said seven Democratic senators facing re-election fights next year in Republican-leaning states would provide a beachhead of Democratic support, and noted the president had already agreed to some delays for his health law.

We have arrived, friends and neighbors, at a big-time teachable moment for the Republican Party, if only the White House and congressional Democrats will recognize it. They need to slowly and clearly, using hand puppets if necessary, make it clear that the pleasure of getting to deal with John Boehner is not so great that they are willing to “compromise” between sanity and insanity on the fiscal front to help him out of his jam. Boehner’s effort to distract his troops from hostage-taking on appropriations to hostage-taking on the debt limit—a vastly more dangerous gambit—should have been the final sign that he’s no better than the “wacko birds” who have mainly become a hobgoblin he can use to scare Democrats into concessions. “Help me,” he cries. “Give me spending cuts or they’ll shut down the government. Give me an Obamacare delay or they’ll destroy the economy!” No more, please. Democrats have the leverage of controlling the White House and the Senate, and won’t gain any more leverage via a phony partnership with John Boehner that just puts off the day when conservatives come to grips with the fact that losing two consecutive presidential elections means they don’t get to call the shots.

If Boehner’s not willing to risk his position by truly standing up against the destructive habits of his conference, then don’t throw him a life preserver as he flounders; throw him an anvil. The sooner his double game comes to an end, the sooner we can have either serious fiscal negotiations or a real fight that makes everyone’s true position clear.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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