Republicans have managed to paint themselves into a corner that the offspring of the Flying Wallendas and Houdini would find difficult to traverse. As my grandpa used to tell me, “Be careful what you wish for boy, if you get it, you might just not know what to do with it and it’ll bite you in the ass.”
- In April, physicians who treat Medicare patients face a drastic cut in pay.
- In May, the Highway Trust Fund runs dry.
- In June, the charter for the federal Export-Import Bank ceases to exist.
- Then in October, across-the-board spending cuts return, the government runs out of money — and the Treasury bumps up against its borrowing limit.
All of the above will require congressional action, and while many of these measures used to be pushed through in the course of normal business, there is no such thing as “simple” in Congress anymore…even with Republicans controlling both Houses of Congress.
“We really don’t have 218 votes to determine a bathroom break over here on our side,” said Representative Charlie Dent, a Pennsylvania Republican. “So how are we going to get 218 votes on transportation, or trade, or whatever the issue? We might as well face the political reality of our circumstances and then act accordingly.”
For instance, take a section of the $500 million I-75 Phase II modernization project underway in Dayton, Ohio. The Highway Trust Fund is among the budget measures that Congress will be faced with passing.
According to Dent, the Republican leadership team, “has not done a good job of managing expectations. There are too many folks with unrealistic expectations.” Give that man a blue ribbon for the biggest understatement of 2015….so far.
Republicans regained power with the midterm election, claiming they would show voters that they were the ones who could govern, break the Washington gridlock, yada, yada, yada. But those victories also concealed huge ideological crevasses within their party.
That friction was on display during the fight to fund Homeland Security, with the radical conservative members forcing Speaker John A. Boehner into a strategy in which he had to win passage in the House with Democratic votes. How’s that for irony?
Even many congressional Republicans have started to say they need an approach beyond a reflexive “no” to prove their ability to function effectively as a majority.
Representative Tom Cole, Republican of Oklahoma and a close ally of Mr. Boehner, said he hoped his colleagues had learned to “stop making the perfect the enemy of the good.”
As a beleaguered Mr. Cole said, “You’re going to have to bargain, and that means the other side has to get something, and in this House, you have to understand that beating on the table and yelling doesn’t turn 54 into 60.”
Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the majority leader, is six votes short of overcoming a Democratic filibuster. And Mr. Boehner, of Ohio, is struggling to maintain his already tenuous grip on his caucus, in which roughly three-dozen members consistently refuse to support virtually any leadership plan.
In their first major test of governing this year, Republicans stumbled, faltered — and nearly shut down the Department of Homeland Security.
And that vote may have been the easy one.
The Republican turmoil has, in turn, empowered congressional Democrats, who found that by standing unified, they can wield significant power from the minority, something Republicans in the Senate had done to great effect in the last Congress.
The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) funding bill fiasco, with its disjointed attempt to abolish Obama’s immigration executive actions, was yet another black eye on the GOP. It showed its obsessional focus on the narrative that only the GOP can “take the country back,” as those famous anti-Obama posters proclaimed in the 2010 midterms.
And take it back to where? Well, that’s clear, as Republicans have yet to propose a positive agenda for America. Republicans are obsessively still stuck on repealing ObamaCare and safeguarding preferential tax rates for hedge fund managers and other big-ticket Republican donors.
But maybe we now have a hint of this grand reactionary vision: the GOP House’s recent release of the federal budget blueprint. In this GOP version of the United States, the budget must be balanced at all costs, even though the federal deficit is now at a historically low percentage relative to gross domestic product. President Reagan would have proclaimed total victory if he had driven down the deficit in the same way Obama has done.
Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, the minority leader, held Senate Democrats together to prevent Republicans from even opening debate on a House-passed bill that would have funded the Homeland Security agency but also gutted President Obama’s recent executive actions on immigration.
Representative Nancy Pelosi of California, the minority leader, kept her members together on the funding fight as well so they did not vote for any Republican measure that did not ultimately result in a long-term “clean” spending bill for the agency.
In an interview in her office, Ms. Pelosi said she expected Democrats to stay united in the face of other fights. Passing bills with a majority of Democratic votes, after all, often helps pull the legislation to the left.
In recent years, Democrats were critical in helping Mr. Boehner on crucial legislation — averting a fiscal showdown, passing the Violence Against Women Act and providing relief for Hurricane Sandy victims — when he did not have enough Republican votes. A similar situation is likely to occur this year, much to the frustration of conservative lawmakers.
The Highway Trust Fund becomes insolvent on May 31, threatening to halt many federally funded infrastructure projects. Congress will need to increase the nation’s debt limit by late summer or early fall, as well as pass a new appropriations bill by the end of September to fund the government through the next fiscal year.
The next major deadline, to prevent cuts in Medicare payments to doctors, comes at the end of this month. Under the current law, if Congress does nothing, payment rates for doctors’ services will be reduced by 21 percent on April 1.
Since 2003, there have been 17 temporary stopgaps to avoid such cuts. But in some years they froze payment rates or provided very small increases.
Doctors descended on Washington in late February, urging lawmakers to repeal the Medicare payment formula, which they say creates great uncertainty and cash flow problems.
Moderate Republicans said they hoped their more conservative colleagues would internalize the lessons of the Homeland Security fight and be willing to make compromises.
“We have to straighten that out,” said Representative Peter T. King of New York. “Otherwise, it’s going to be a rough two years.”
But Mr. King represents a quieter faction within the Republican majority. Many more hard-line members said they planned to double down on their strategy of opposing their leadership when they did not think the Republican proposal was sufficiently conservative.
“Sometimes it only takes a couple of these battles, though, to act as a catalyst for major change,” said Representative Matt Salmon, an Arizona Republican. “I think that right now the powers that be are already on a very slippery slope. They understand that, they know that. You lose one battle, but I don’t think you necessarily lose the war.”
Ms. Pelosi said she had a candid but good rapport with Mr. Boehner, whom she often calls as he finds himself stuck, to ask: “How can I respectfully help? How can we get this done?”
But does she ever feel just a little sorry for him? “He’s the speaker of the House,” she said, considering the question. “The speaker of the House has awesome power, and I think that the more that power is used to find solutions, the stronger the speaker is.”
Republicans envision an America in which basic federal investments — in education, infrastructure, science research, health and support for the elderly and indigent — are no longer priorities. The newly proposed House GOP budget would slash all those traditional government expenditures to the tune of $5.7 trillion over nine years.
Defying all logic, Republicans have concluded that eliminating almost $6 trillion out of the U.S. economy creates growth and a balanced budget. But one only has to look across the Atlantic and see what that kind of radical austerity has brought to Europe. Massive economic pain, deflation, depression-levels of unemployment, multiple recessions since the 2008 crash and significant social instability have all combined to create a poorer, less powerful and less influential European Union.
Aside from the GOP austerity budget that expresses ideological purity in an almost Soviet fashion — pursuing economy policies with proven records of failure, but incapable of changing those approaches because of ideological rigidity — Republicans have also applied this ideological obsession to deporting undocumented families.
Which is actually not an irrational policy for a party increasingly isolated and dependent for votes from a single group of Americans. A new study projects that 95 percent of GOP primary voters will be white. Now of course, primary voters tend to represent the most committed, ideologically focused people for whom party ideology — be it Republican of Democrat — is a pseudo-religion, dogma in political garb.
But playing to those extremes, as former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (R) proved in 2012, does not lead to a national majority.
From the DHS bill to pushing for a states-driven judicial killing of Obama’s immigration actions, Republicans have become implacable in their anti-Hispanic activism.
Of course, immigration is not a Hispanic issue per se. But Latino support for immigration reform is undeniable, as are Hispanic voters’ reaction to Republican politicians that engage in dog-whistle rhetoric that is a thinly-veiled attack upon all Americans of Hispanic descent.
Immigration is a strategic concern on a national level. What is the best workforce, the best consumer market that America can develop through immigration? It has been this way since George Washington encouraged immigration and a path toward citizenship for immigrants in order to transform the United States from a lightly populated coastal nation into what would eventually become a continental empire.
Nativists have been decrying immigrants ever since. But the inescapable geopolitical and economic needs of the nation have meant that over the last 200 years, immigration has been interwoven into American culture.
In spite of periodical burst of racist repression (e.g., the Chinese Exclusion Act; “Irish Need Not Apply”; Japanese internment camps after Pearl Harbor; the deportation of American citizens of Mexican descent during the Depression; and the ongoing Republican effort to harass principally poor Hispanic immigrants through prejudicial policies), America has prospered as a unified nation, welcoming people from across the world to contribute their part to the American Dream.
Militant conservatives are calling for a coup against House Speaker John Boehner. The hard core right is expressing fury toward Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. The real villain, however, is an economic “ice age,” not feeble Congressional leadership.
Meanwhile, beyond the Congress, the vast majority of presidential aspirants strangely are mute on the economic stagnation causing or contributing to all these, and more, problems. Perhaps Republicans should take a closer look at the gratuitous status quo, economic stagnation and change the focus to: how to get equitable prosperity back on track rather than reveling in their prolific campaign strategies.
The reduced growth rate that government gridlock and ill-timed austerity creates means living standards are increasing at about half their post-World War II pace for individual Americans. For low- and middle-income families, that’s not even standing still…it’s sliding down a hill towards a second Great Depression.
And if it happens with the Republicans pandering to the wealthy, sending ill-conceived, possibly treasonous letters to leaders of our assumed enemies, and obsessing over deporting five million hard-working, productive immigrants while controlling both houses of congress, they will have no one left to point their fingers at but other Republicans.
Harvey A. Gold