McConnell vows no more government shutdowns. Does tea party agree?

Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell said Sunday that government shutdowns were a bad idea not consistent with conservative ideals. But it's unclear whether other Republicans agree.

Susan Walsh/AP
Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky talks to an unidentified person in his office before a closed-door meeting of Senate Republicans on Capitol Hill in Washington earlier this month.

Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky said Sunday on CBS's "Face the Nation": "There will not be another government shutdown. You can count on that."

It is an impressive statement, coming from the top Senate Republican. As the man who has finagled the Republicans out of two debt-ceiling crises, too, his voice carries no small weight.

Then again, it does bear noting: He never wanted this one, either.

And that probably means one of two things:

1. His statement is just political bluster designed to assuage a nation that, polls say, are angry at Republicans for a government shutdown that accomplished effectively nothing.

2. He is actually going to try to get tough on tea party Republicans.

If the answer is No. 1, well, we've seen this show before. But if the answer is No. 2, who knows what will happen next.

The government shutdown, in fact, looks a lot like No. 1. No establishment Republicans thought it was a good idea, and for all the complaining they've done about President Obama taking a "victory lap" post-crisis, many Senate Republicans are taking victory laps of their own, telling the tea parties how stupid this all was.

Yet what could they do to stop it? Admittedly, Senate Republican firebrands like Mike Lee of Utah and Rand Paul of Kentucky were marginalized, but Ted Cruz of Texas got more screen time than Kim Kardashian.The word "Cruzsade" was coined. Seriously.

And how about the conservatives in the House?

Like Senator McConnell, House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio didn't want a government shutdown. In fact, he pleaded with his colleagues not to do it. But they went ahead and did it anyway.

This accession to his caucus, of course, is in Mr. Boehner's political DNA. He is a legislator's legislator. Let the process work. Let the members speak. Let the House work its will. But what if he all of a sudden decided to go all Tom DeLay on us and started cracking skulls? What if he said, "enough is enough, there will not be another government shutdown"? And meant it.

If Rep. Tim Huelskamp (R) of Kansas is any indication, that might not work so well.

In December, the House Steering Committee, which is essentially an arm of Boehner's authority, removed Representative Huelskamp from his positions on the Budget and Agriculture Committees. Quite clearly, Boehner was sending a message to one of his most intransigent tea party insurgents: Pipe down.

In recent weeks, however, Huelskamp became virtually the spokesman for House conservatives during the shutdown – if anything, gaining clout on the Hill and cementing himself as a power player in the House.

With well-funded conservative activists and action groups calling for no compromise, they are always needing new heroes to tout – and to finance. Huelskamp has not gone away. He's gotten stronger.

Which brings us back to McConnell's pledge Sunday. Perhaps establishment Republicans can find a leash by which to bring tea partyers to heel. But they haven't yet. And with data suggesting that House Republicans are not driven by a few tea party members, but have in fact moved significantly rightward as a whole in recent years, how do you dictate terms to a whole caucus?

Perhaps conservatives themselves have come to the same conclusion as McConnell. Perhaps they have realized that government shutdowns are an excessively ineffective political tool – an enormous cost with no gain.

But the so-called "civil war" raging within the GOP has more than a note of truth. The tea party might not be an official party, but it continues to act like a separate rightist party in practice. Would adherents ever choose the good of the (establishment) Republican Party above their own ideology?

That, it seems, is the question for which McConnell has not yet found a satisfactory answer.

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