Government shutdown: Is John Boehner losing at tea party's game?

Speaker John Boehner said Sunday that the House wouldn't vote to end the government shutdown unless President Obama made some concessions. But Democrats have heard this before.

Scott Applewhite/AP
Speaker of the House John Boehner (R) of Ohio arrives at the Capitol in Washington Saturday. The Republican-controlled House and the Democrat-controlled Senate are at an impasse, neither side backing down after House GOP conservatives linked a government funding bill to changes to President Obama's signature health-care law.

House Speaker John Boehner (R) of Ohio is coming face-to-face with the tactics that his party has introduced to contemporary American politics, and boy is it frustrating.

Tea party-fueled Republicans certainly didn't introduce the stonewall into American politics. Last time we checked, the United States Senate was founded on the idea of members in the minority making life unbearable for the majority. See: filibuster.

But the tea party revolution has brought a new wrinkle. Unable to get much of anything through the legislative process, the Republicans found a new lever: the debt ceiling. In 2011, they used the threat of refusing to raise it to win the sequester cuts – their one major victory of the tea party era.

Like football or poker, however, politics is essentially a game (despite Mr. Boehner's protestations to the contrary Friday), and when one team wins, the other is sure to change tactics to prevent it happening again. If defensive coordinators in the National Football League spend late nights in the office devising schemes to solve the read option, why would we not expect the same of strategists in the halls of Congress?

So the Republicans found in 2011 that the threat of global economic meltdown was sufficient to get the Democrats to blink. It shouldn't be so surprising that the Democrats now would be willing to turn the tables. If they didn't, after all, they would be conceding that the Republicans could bully them into concessions they find odious every time a debt-ceiling rise came due – or government funding ran out. (Which is essentially what has happened.)

How do you think that prospect has sat with Senate majority leader Harry Reid (D) of Nevada? No wonder he always looks like Mr. Crankypants. But now he's had enough.

Think of it this way. For a few years, Oakland A's general manager Billy Beane was able to make his bargain-basement teams competitive with the New York Yankees of the world through "Moneyball" – a revolutionary way of assessing baseball talent. Then, everyone started to catch on – including the big spenders – and he lost his advantage.

In other words, the rest of the league caught on and started playing the same game.

Today's stalemate in Congress over the government shutdown and a potential debt-limit increase is little different. For a while, the tea party punched above its weight because it was willing to stand on its principles, seemingly heedless of the outcome. This wasn't wholly new, perhaps, but the depth of the tea party's commitment to its principles certainly threw Congress off balance for a few years.

Now, Democrats are saying: "We can play this game, too." And frankly, this, too, is a matter of principle for the likes of Mr. Reid. For a former boxer who approaches politics with the same subtlety, the desire not to get steamrolled by a group he considers "anarchists" is a matter of the deepest political principle. 

The fact is, it is not at all clear where Boehner comes down on all this. His political pedigree suggests that he's closer to Reid as a politician than to his own upstarts. By trade, he's a dealmaker. Yet his job as Speaker depends upon him taking a stand he knows he has virtually no chance of winning this time.

The House will not pass a "clean CR" he said Sunday. In Washington code, "CR" means continuing resolution – a bill to temporarily fund government. In other words, he says the House won't end the government shutdown and avert a debt-limit crisis unless President Obama, Reid, and the Democrats play ball. Boehner's brood wants a replay of 2011.

"This isn't some damn game," a frustrated Boehner told reporters Friday.

Except ... it is, as he very well knows. And now the Democrats are turning the tea party's own rules against him.

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