The Smart Money: Heading over the fiscal cliff? How a fracturing GOP may hold the key

Posted Tuesday, October 15, 2013 in Analysis

The Smart Money: Heading over the fiscal cliff? How a fracturing GOP may hold the key

by Gina Hamilton

As of this writing there is a deal in the works ... maybe ... between Republicans and Democrats in the Senate.  It's nothing like what the Republicans in the House shut down the government for.  The plan is to open both the government and to establish a short-term debt ceiling rise, requiring a conference committee to hammer out the details, and to roll back some of the worst aspects of the sequester. It would delay a reinsurance requirement for the Affordable Care Act - something unions wanted desperately.  In return, the GOP would get only one thing, and no one was even contesting it.  People who get subsidies would have to submit paystubs or profit/loss statements to demonstrate their income.

So politically, it would be a complete loss for the tea party and the GOP, no matter what kind of sweetening the Senate GOP sprinkles on top.

Now, a word about the tea party and the mainstream Republicans.  Although they caucus together, they aren't really the same political party, and they have very different goals.  To distinguish them, I'll refer to the mainstreamers as Republicans, and the tea partiers as Teapublicans. 

The Republicans say they want smaller government, but in fact, they don't.  They want a fairly robust central government with a strong defense, strong penal system, strong law enforcement options, strong military industrial complex, veterans' services, and strong border control.  They're not opposed to government spending; they just oppose programs that are widely socially beneficial, like Social Security, universal healthcare, education, welfare for the poor, and so on. 

The Teapublicans really do want a government they could drown in a bathtub, to use Grover Norquist's quaint expression.  They don't like paying taxes - any taxes, for any reason - and they are opposed to government spending for almost everything.  They also seem slightly confused about who is in fact paying for things they use, such as Social Security and Medicare and Veterans' services. They are very anti-government. But they shouldn't be confused with libertarians; they're also incredibly socially conservative, and vote in favor of things that have the effect of restricting other people's rights.

It's a fragile coalition at best.  Out of 233 Republicans in the House, about 49 are members of the Tea Party caucus, although Teapublicans resist even being members of a caucus and haven't met since 2012 because they don't trust the Republicans' motivation in giving them their own caucus.  Nineteen House Teapublicans retired or lost their seats in 2012.  Another 40 or so members vote with the Teapublicans on a regular basis. 

The Teapublicans are unified against the deal that the Senate is hammering out, but they'd be unified against any deal that doesn't include defunding the Affordable Care Act.  However, many other conservative Republicans are also unhappy with the deal.  If it passes in the House, it will do so with significant Democratic support, and a minority of Republicans/Teapublicans.  Two hundred seventeen votes are needed to pass.  The Democrats command 200 of those votes, and moderate Republicans would represent the rest.

So Boehner, who has subscribed to the so-called 'Hastert Rule' - never call a vote when you can't count on a majority of the majority - will not want to call a vote.  He will dither for hours.  He knows that his coalition will fracture completely if he calls a vote without a majority of the majority, or significant tea party support.

But will the needs of the nation outweigh Boehner's fragile speakership concerns?  In the end, they probably will.  The U.S. will lose the authority to borrow funds to pay its bills on Thursday.  Boehner will not want to be responsible for a government default, either.  He will likely call a vote at the 11th hour; Teapublicans will either boycott the vote altogether or appear and vote 'nay' in lockstep.

The Tea Party, which has shown it no great respect for the two-party system and certainly not its own party's Speaker, could choose to go their own way after that.  That would turn give the House three parties, with Democrats holding 200 seats, Republicans holding 184, and Teapublicans holding 49. Two seats are vacant.  That would give the Democrats control of the House and Senate.

The deal would kick the can down the road until after the holidays.  But the can still contains a deadly rattlesnake, and at some point, the two major parties have to be willing to pick it up and deal with the serpent ... together.

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