As Texas Senator Ted Cruz spent 21 hours reading bedtime stories and perfecting his Darth Vader impression on the Senate floor this week in a bid to defund Obamacare, he was aided only by a handful of Tea Party buddies. Usually, when the Tea Party calls, even mainstream Republicans answer. This time, they stayed away. Yes, the stunt made the firebrand Cruz a hero among grass-roots conservatives, but others in his party lined up to pin blame on the Texas Republican should the government shut down on Oct. 1. Those who’ve long despaired over the Republican Party’s capture by its most extreme wing couldn’t help but hope: Could this mark the beginning of the end of the brinksmanship that’s plagued D.C. in recent years? In other words, could some semblance of political sanity be returning to Congress?
It’s still hard to tell. As of Friday afternoon, the Republican leadership seemed powerless to rein in the demands of its most conservative members, who would rather shut down the government or — even worse — force a default in the government’s bond payments to bring an end to Obamacare. Such moves would be disastrous for the country, and ruinous for the Republican Party. Put aside, for a moment, the hope for a half-a-loaf compromise with Democrats. The people driving this government hostage-taking aren’t looking for half a loaf, and their tactics can’t be rewarded. Even the Republican leadership seems to realize this. The only question is whether their decision to walk away from Cruz will give them the strength to walk away from the threat of a government shutdown.
The Senate’s top two Republicans, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and Minority Whip John Cornyn of Texas, have been vocal about their distaste for the president’s signature health care law, and McConnell is already facing a primary challenge from the right in his reelection next year. Cornyn hopes to avoid this scenario. Splitting with a Tea Party freshman like Cruz risks alienating voters McConnell and Cornyn can’t afford to lose. That’s why it was so significant that both refused to sign on to Cruz’s cause last week, clearing the way for other Republicans to follow their lead.
In the House, New York Representative Peter King minced even fewer words. “We can’t be going off on these false missions that Ted Cruz wants us to go on,” King, no fan of Obamacare himself, told CNN. “The issues are too important. They’re too serious, they require real conservative solutions, not cheap headline-hunting schemes.”
Cynics will note the shutdown-or-defund strategy polls terribly with the public, meaning the only politically expedient option for Republicans is to pass a stopgap measure to avert the shutdown next week. House Speaker John Boehner has hinted in the past he’d prefer as much, even as he and other House GOP leaders trotted out their unrealistic list of demands to prevent the next impending crisis, the standoff over raising the debt limit.
Yet after years of showdowns, extreme posturing, and name-calling, it was refreshing to see at least some members of Congress seem to realize that enough can truly be enough.