Conventional wisdom in Washington holds that Republicans are overplaying their hand by threatening to shut down the government over the Affordable Care Act. Even Republican strategist Karl Rove is warning that this is a dangerous move.
But there's something else going on that demands our attention: We are witnessing a political shift. The tea party seems to be taking over the GOP. Its small numbers belie its increasingly outsized clout. Despite having only 49 caucus members in the House, the tea party has so threatened House Speaker John Boehner that he not only puts forward bills he knows full well are only gimmicks, but also now seems willing to risk a government shutdown and default crisis while doing so.
The previous conventional wisdom held that the tea party had more bark than bite and no serious legislative clout. Sure, Boehner had been willing to hold more than 40 votes during the year to repeal the Affordable Care Act, but they were largely meaningless votes since everyone knew the bills were going nowhere. Few thought Boehner would risk a government shutdown over it – especially since a shutdown would hurt millions of Americans and is wildly unpopular. It's so unpopular that even half of the independents who support defunding Obamacare don't want a government shutdown over it.
Even more remarkable, the tea party apparently has enough clout to force this game of legislative chicken even though everyone in Congress knows full well that its non-partisan research arm concluded that the vote to "defund Obamacare" would not, in fact, defund Obamacare because Obamacare is funded mostly through multi-year and mandatory funding unaffected by the annual appropriations process. (The "defund Obamacare" votes may have more to do with Obama's name than anything else: Obamacare is unpopular with 46 percent of Americans – but only 37 percent don't like the Affordable Care Act. Same law. Different names.)
How is the tea party so effectively whipping Republicans? Through its threats to topple Boehner and to mount primary challenges against members who don't vote their way. As Steven LaTourette, a moderate Republican who retired last year but was close to Boehner put it, "They seize on an issue and they have litmus tests about who's a good Republican and who's pure and who's not pure. They used to do that in Salem Mass., too, but it's not fair."
Now, this doesn't mean that every Republican is cowed. On the Senate side, a number of Republicans have counseled against these votes. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., urged his colleagues to stop these shutdown and debt default "shenanigans." Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., called the defund vote "the dumbest idea." And Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., counseled: "We would be telling people that we're defunding Obamacare when we really aren't – so little of it is contained in annual appropriations. We're held in low-enough regard without telling people we're doing something when we really aren't." McCain led another strike for rationality when he lectured tea partyer Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, for likening opponents of the defund movement to people who were too afraid to challenge Hitler.
But is Boehner heeding the American public or his Senate colleagues? No, it's looking like the House Speaker is a hostage to the tea party. On Friday, the Senate sent the House a "clean" resolution to continue funding the government. Over the weekend, the House responded with yet another Obamacare response – this time a one-year delay in the law. Plus, they added an additional policy fight: contraceptive coverage. Not abortion, mind you, just contraception.
On Monday, the Senate will send over another "clean" continuing resolution. And Boehner will face a midnight deadline for a shutdown. Here's the problem. To keep his speakership, Boehner will either need to shut the government down or make good on a reported promise to take the Obamacare fight to the debt ceiling debacle. (The Treasury is reporting that it will be unable to pay outstanding bills as of October 17, and Boehner promised a "whale of a fight".)
Economists on both sides of the aisle would likely say that if Boehner needs to give the tea party a win, it's safer to give them a short-term government shutdown rather than default on the debt – because defaulting could cause a serious worldwide economic tailspin. At the least, defaulting would severely damage America's credit rating such that the U.S. would become a riskier borrower, having to pay a much higher interest rate. You would think deficit-minded Republicans would be concerned about such a rash move.
Of course, even a short-term government shutdown will weaken economic growth, and a shutdown of longer than two months would likely precipitate another recession, according to a leading economist. Fear of a shutdown has already hurt the U.S. dollar and rattled markets.
The public is worried too. Nearly seven in 10 Americans would prefer an agreement – even if it contains content they do not support – over a debt default. But who cares what the American people want when you've got tea partyers on a Salem witch hunt breathing down your neck? Boehner is in a bind. But it's a bind of the tea party's making. We may, indeed, be witnessing the GOP's transformation into the Grand Old Tea Party.