A House Divided

Conflicted GOP puts dramatic stop to Boehner's debt ceiling plan.

If there is anything that has been lost in the debt ceiling debate, the phrase "elections have consequences" might top the list. Due to the latest negotiations, there has been a "Boehner must go!" revolt brewing among Tea Party activists. Tea Party Nation founder Judson Phillips accuses the House Speaker of "surrendering again" for abandoning last week's Cut, Cap and Balance plan in favor of new legislation aimed at slashing $900 billion over ten years in exchange for raising the debt ceiling. The backlash resulted in a highly anticipated House vote on the Boehner plan being postponed late Thursday night pending more back-room wrangling. Tea Partiers have every right to be angry, but it is an anger which must be measured against reality: liberal Democrats control the Senate and the presidency. Despite the 2010 election, it's still two against one.

Toss in a mainstream media which has referred to Tea Partiers as "domestic extremists," a "Hezbollah faction" taking the G.O.P. on "a suicide mission," and "male elephants...oozing a weird, foul-smelling, greenish glop from glands near their eyes, behav[ing] with violent abandon, taking risks and defying the basic rules of pachyderm propriety" and it becomes three against one.

That such descriptions are hyperbolic and inaccurate, to say nothing of an utterly hypocritical abandonment of the Left's professed desire to "tone down the rhetoric" following the shooting of Arizona congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, is without question. Are they effective? The Republican-led House has passed two plans and was negotiating a third late Thursday. The Democratically-controlled Senate killed the Ryan Plan, tabled Cut, Cap and Balance rather than pass or defeat it, and labeled Mr. Boehner's latest effort DOA, with 53 Democratic senators pledging to vote against it. The White House has promised a veto. Senate Democrats have proposed a plan of their own, but have passed nothing.

So who takes the hit if debt ceiling talks fail? According to the latest Pew Research Center/Washington Post poll, Republicans more than the Obama administration, by a 42 to 33 percent margin.

Tea Partiers undoubtedly consider the poll results a triumph of a biased mainstream media, which has simultaneously highlighted Republican "extremism," while it has underplayed equal, if not greater amounts of Democratic intransigence. Intransigence exemplified by the Democrats' failure to pass a budget when they controlled both houses of Congress and the presidency, the Senate's failure to pass a budget in over 800 days, and the president's failure to garner a single vote on the only budget he's ever presented.

Do the Tea Partiers have a legitimate beef? The answer is irrelevant. The media doesn't vote on the debt ceiling, and Tea Partiers are quick to forget they were just as hostile prior to the 2010 election, in which Tea Partiers were enormously successful. Conservative economist Thomas Sowell explains what's important: "Is the Boehner legislation the best legislation possible? Of course not! You don't get your heart's desire when you control only one house of Congress and face a presidential veto," he writes. "The most basic fact of life is that we can make our choices only among the alternatives actually available. It is not idealism to ignore the limits of one's power. Nor is it selling out one's principles to recognize those limits at a given time and place, and get the best deal possible under those conditions."

Sowell then illuminates the big picture. "There are a lot of things to weigh against each other, not only as regards the economy, but also what the consequences to this nation would be to have Barack Obama get re-elected and go further down the dangerous path he has put us on, at home and abroad. Is it worth that risk to make a futile symbolic vote in Congress?" he asks.

The answer is no. And despite Democratic huffing and puffing about how Boehner's current bill won't pass the Senate (or if does, get vetoed by the president), threatening to do something and doing it are two different animals. As the Wall Street Journal points out, there are two "next-to-last realistic options" to deal with the debt ceiling: the plan proposed by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, and Mr. Boehner's plan. And if Reid can't get the 60 votes necessary to move his plan along in the Senate, then the House plan is the only game in town.

Boehner, who reportedly told recalcitrant Republicans to "get their asses in line," corralled members of his party for the procedural vote necessary to move the bill along. That vote was 238-186, and set the stage for the final passage of the bill later Thursday evening.

Unsurprisingly, Democrats did everything they could to undermine Republican efforts. House Democrat Leader Nancy Pelosi offered the most hyperbolic quote of the day. "What we're trying to do is save the world from the Republican budget. We're trying to save life on this planet as we know it today," she said. White House press secretary Jay Carney called the Republican plan "incredibly juvenile," and claimed the GOP was "trying to stick the president with default." White House deputy spokesman Dan Pfeiffer essentially accused the Republicans of trying to ruin Christmas. “Happy Holidays America: the Boehner plan would have the debt ceiling all over again during the holiday season, which is critical for the economy,” he warned.

And president Obama himself, in yet another attempt to frighten a particular constituency that depends on government checks, met with veterans groups on Tuesday to "discuss" what would happen if Congress fails to reach a consensus. “If that happens, and we default, we would not have enough money to pay all of our bills--bills that include monthly Social Security checks, veterans’ benefits, and the government contracts we’ve signed with thousands of businesses,” he warned.

Thursday morning, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor countered with a little pressure of his own. “This is a compromise piece of legislation that was negotiated between the Speaker and bipartisan leadership in the Senate, and so Harry Reid’s got a choice to make,” Cantor said. “Either he will go ahead and accept a compromise or he’s going to bring on default, something I hope he doesn’t do.” Reid was undaunted. “As soon as the House completes its vote, the Senate will move to take up that bill and it will be defeated tonight,” he said.

Tonight never came. Apparently unable to muster sufficient votes for passage, House leadership postponed their vote late Thursday evening.

In one respect, that may have been a good thing. By attempting to pass yet another bill on top of Cut, Cap and Balance, absent anything concrete counter-offered by the Senate, the House was, for all intents and purposes, negotiating against itself. While that may be noble, it is also counter-productive. The Democrats' chief advantage in this showdown has been the fact that neither the Democratically-controlled Senate nor the president have revealed any specific plans of their own. Whatever Republicans send to the Senate will likely die, or be "reconciled" beyond recognition and sent back to the House, who would be blamed for failing to pass it. It might be a better idea to demand that Democrats offer their own plan, even as Republicans remind Americans that they have already passed two plans, both of which have been rejected out of hand.

This is probably the best the Republicans can do. Why? Because a Democratic Party in control of the Senate and the White House can wait for the last minute before offering Republicans a take-it-or-we'll-default ultimatum, confident the mainstream media will characterize Mr. Obama and Mr. Reid, et al., as the "responsible" characters in this ongoing drama. Cynical? Yes. Doable? Absolutely.

Whatever the ultimate outcome, one thing is likely: Tea Partiers will be disappointed for not getting enough of what they wanted. Yet if they are truly concerned about the future of the country, they must remember that unconscionable levels of deficit spending and 14 trillion dollars of national debt didn't happen all at once, nor will they be fixed all at once. They must also realize what they've achieved: in spite of the reality that Democrats have had majority control of the government since 2006, a paradigm shift away from their worldview is occurring. When the American Left is forced to negotiate anything in terms of deficit reduction, that is a great start.

But it is only a start. The big picture must be the defeat of Barack Obama in 2012, and the return of the Senate to Republican control. Pillorying John Boehner and members of the House who support the best deal they can get in a minority capacity is a waste of time and energy. Time and energy better spent rallying Americans to the cause of fiscal sanity and greater freedom in 2012.