The 2011 showdown that led the U.S. to the brink of a debt default and then a government shutdown was about ideology and party politics. It was about what the government’s size should be, how much deficits matter in tough economic times, and about looking good to the respective constituencies. The current re-run of that well-worn show, though, is about what happens in Republican primary races.
The case in point, of course, is Tea Party Texas Senator Ted Cruz, who spearheaded an effort to tie the GOP’s campaign to repeal Obamacare to the process of renewing funding for the federal government. Cruz, along with Utah Senator Mike Lee, put intense pressure on House Republican Leader John Boehner to introduce and oversee the passage of a budget bill that included a provision to block the president’s healthcare law. The bill, it is now clear, has no chance of receiving approval in Senate in its current form. The higher chamber will strip it of the Obamacare addendum and volley it back to the House, leaving Republicans with very little time to approve an identical piece of legislation before Oct. 1, the start of fiscal year 2014.
A government shutdown, in other words, might be all but guaranteed by now. And the blame, if it happens, will fall squarely onto the Republican party.
This is precisely the outcome that the leadership of the Republican party wanted to avoid. The last time Congress failed to renew funding for the federal agencies was 1996, and although public opinion seemed to share the Republicans’ concern about public spending at the time, it turned against them when the government actually shut down. Boehner and his Republican counterpart in the Senate are very well aware of history — and so were many other Republicans, who distanced themselves from Cruz’ crusade. Even the notoriously conservative editorial board of the Wall Street Journal called it a “charge into the fixed bayonets.”
In all likelihood, Cruz’ intent in launching the suicidal mission was to deter the emergence of a possible Republican primary challenger on the right. That would also explain the rationale behind his 14-hour anti-Obamcare speech on the night between Tuesday and Wednesday, which served no apparent purpose because it wasn’t technically a filibuster and could not postpone any scheduled Senate vote. Who would question the senator’s Tea Party credentials and the sincerity of his Obamacare hatred now? The same very same concerns about primary politics might be what convinced the Republican leadership to eventually cave in to Cruz’ unlikely plan.
That’s a worrying development. It’s by no means the first time that the career prospects of individual members of the U.S. Congress play such as outsized role in politics. In the past, though, it used to be about lawmakers in swing districts who might face election challenges. The political calculus would then push the parties toward the political centre and compromise. On the contrary, the mechanics of primary races, it seems, are pushing the GOP to act not only against the interest of the country, but that of the party itself.
Erica Alini is a reporter based in Cambridge, Mass., and a regular contributor to CanadianBusiness.com, where she covers the U.S. economy.