Government shutdown: how the GOP descended into civil war

The GOP wants to avoid a government shutdown on Oct. 1 by passing a temporary government funding bill that would not include any money for Mr. Obama's health-care reform law. Here is a comprehensive primer on how we got here and who's involved.

2. The House establishment goes 'squish'

J. Scott Applewhite/AP
Speaker of the House John Boehner (R) of Ohio (r.) House majority leader Eric Cantor of Virginia (c.) and Rep. Lee Terry (R) of Nebraska wait to speak with reporters following a strategy session on Wednesday.

At the heart of this maelstrom is Mr. Boehner (R) of Ohio, who opposed holding the continuing resolution hostage to defunding Obamacare, before then adopting that very strategy Wednesday.

Top Democrats read that shift as proof that Boehner was no longer in control of his party. Obama told business leaders that he “couldn’t remember a time when one faction of one party promises economic chaos if it doesn’t get 100 percent of what it want.” House minority leader Nancy Pelosi (D) of California said that Boehner had “surrendered the gavel “ to the tea party. And Sen. Charles Schumer (D) of New York said that House Republican leaders “had decided to give extremists their day in the sun.”  

Asked at a press briefing on Thursday who he thought was running the Republican conference right now, Boehner said: “Listen, we’ve got a diverse caucus, frankly…. It’s tough to get them on the same track. We got there.”

Just a week ago, some tea party Republicans were calling for Boehner’s ouster.

For months, Boehner, a veteran of the abortive 1995 and '96 government shutdowns, tried to convince the GOP caucus that Republicans couldn’t risk taking the blame for another shutdown or, worse, a default on the national debt. On his watch, the House had taken more than 40 votes to defund the health-care plan, which is scheduled to launch major new features on Oct. 1.

But for newcomers who had won their seats on a pledge to scuttle Obamacare, “show” votes going nowhere in the Senate weren’t enough. With divided government, it takes leverage, and without the threat of a shutdown or default, Republicans had no clout.

Last week, as Republicans met for the first time after weeks back home in their districts, Boehner proposed an obscure procedural measure that would have forced the Senate to take a recorded vote on defunding Obamacare, but would not have automatically produced a shutdown if that vote failed.

To right-wing critics, Boehner’s move looked like a “squish” (a favorite term of derision on the right) not the bold, principled fight they had promised the voters who elected them. Chris Chocola, president of the Club for Growth, known for funding primary campaigns against Republicans not deemed conservative enough, called the Boehner proposal a “legislative trick” and a “bad joke.”

On Wednesday, the leadership team – once known for its intense rivalries, but united on this issue – urged the caucus to adopt an approach that would avoid a government shutdown. Again, the bid failed. This time, just 13 days before the government was to run out of funds, Boehner capitulated. He needs at least 217 votes to pass a bill. He has 233 Republicans in the House, meaning he could lose only 16 GOP votes without help from Democrats. But 90 conservatives had signed a letter urging Boehner to link Obamacare to the spending fight.

In short, he didn't have the votes.

“We've got a lot of divergent opinions in the caucus, and the key to any leadership job is to listen,” Boehner said at a press briefing after the caucus meeting on Wednesday.

“We have a plan that they're happy with,” he added. “We're going forward.”

GOP leaders see this outcome as just a first move in an extended negotiation, which will include raising the debt limit and addressing the sequester, a package of mandatory spending cuts agreed to in the Budget Control Act of 2011, which capped the last debt-limit showdown.

“This is our opening position,” said Rep. Tom Cole (R) of Oklahoma, a deputy whip, exiting the caucus meeting. “The process has to start with us passing legislation. If we can’t move a CR [continuing resolution] out of here, the rest of this is all hypothetical. It’s time to settle on a product and move it to the Senate.”

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