Republicans lose budget battle, but US fiscal war may continue

(By Deutsche Welle) In the last-minute deal that averted a default, Republicans won no substantive concessions from the White House. After taking a hit in the polls, the Grand Old Party is licking its wounds and contemplating what’s next.

For more than two weeks, Republicans went to the mat in Washington’s latest partisan fiscal battle in a push to defund President Barack Obama’s signature Affordable Care Act (ACA). But on Wednesday, the Tea Party caucus couldn’t hold the line any longer, with many moderate Republicans agreeing to cut their losses and support a bill to fund the government and raise the debt ceiling through the New Year.

“We fought the good fight, we just didn’t win,” Republican Speaker of the House John Boehner told conservative radio talk show host Bill Cunningham in Cincinnati, Ohio.

Under Wednesday’s agreement, the federal government will receive funding through January 15, while the debt ceiling has been raised until February 7. In exchange, Republicans secured only a token concession, which tightens income verification rules for Americans applying for health care subsidies under the ACA.

“Our drive to stop the train wreck that is the president’s health care law will continue,” Boehner said in a press release.

Although Boehner had encouraged his party to support the bill that the president would eventually sign, only 87 Republicans heeded the speaker’s call and voted for it. In the Senate, where the bill originated, 18 Republicans cast their ballots in favor of the legislation.

“The real question going forward is the same question as this time,” Theda Skocpol, author of “The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism,” told DW. “When will other Republicans, conservatives who want to operate within normal governing procedures, when are they going to stand up to these folks?”

‘Obamacare is the law of the land’

Shortly after Obama’s re-election last November, Boehner appeared to back off from the Republican Party’s vow to repeal the ACA, commonly referred to as Obamacare. When asked by ABC’s Diane Sawyer if the GOP still planned to push for repeal, the speaker said “the election changes that.”

“The president was re-elected,” Boehner continued. “Obamacare is the law of the land.”

Last March, in a radio interview with conservative talk show host Sean Hannity, Boehner even warned against attaching Obamacare to a so-called continuing resolution, C.R. for short, which would fund the federal government.

“Our goal is to cut spending, not to shut down the government,” Boehner said. “If we were to put Obamacare into the C.R., we were risking shutting down the government. That is not our goal. Our goal is to cut spending.”

Tea Party revolt

But as the October 1 rollout of the health care reform law approached, Senator Ted Cruz led a push to force a government shutdown over Obamacare, rallying grassroots support at Tea Party events during the summer recess. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, skeptical of the strategy, sought an alternative in which the two measures – defunding Obamacare and passing a funding bill – would be separated.

An exercise in realpolitik, Cantor’s proposal would have let Republicans have a symbolic vote on health care, while the Democrat-controlled Senate could axe the measure to defund Obamacare and still pass the funding bill. But Tea Party members in the House, however, rejected Cantor’s proposal and instead passed a bill linking funding the government to defunding Obamacare.

Following a series of procedural steps in the Senate, including a 21-hour talk-a-thon by Cruz that catapulted him to national fame while creating a rift with GOP establishment figures, a bill that maintained funding for health care reform was returned to the House. Tea Party Republicans, however, were unwilling to support a measure that didn’t touch Obamacare and created a bind for Boehner.

According to Skocpol, the House leadership eventually backed down in the face of the Tea Party’s demands in order to preserve its own power and ultimately led to the government shutdown.

“The reason Boehner did it this time is not to be admired,” said Skocpol, a professor of government and sociology at Harvard University. “He did it simply to save his skin from a challenge on the right in the leadership voting in the House among Republicans.”

GOP drops in the polls

According to recent polling, Republicans have taken a bigger hit over the government shutdown. The Pew Research Center reported that 30 percent of Americans blamed Obama for the shutdown, while 38 percent said Republicans were at fault. But an ABC/Washington Post survey came to a much starker conclusion: 53 percent of Americans disapproved of how Obama handled the budget dispute, while 74 percent disapproved of how Republicans in Congress handled the negotiations.

From the beginning, moderates like Boehner feared that risking a government shutdown could hurt the GOP’s chances in 2014’s midterm elections. But according to Josef Braml, an US expert with the German Council on Foreign Relations, many Tea Party Republicans probably have little to fear.

“When you look at individual districts and where those Tea Party folks come from, their constituents are very happy with what they’re doing in Washington,” Braml told DW. “You look at their district and … you have very homogeneous districts.”

The next battle

So despite the negative polling, Tea Party Republicans in safe districts might seek to fight the same battle again in January over government funding and in February over the debt ceiling. Many big-name Republicans tipped as potential 2016 presidential nominees – such as Cruz, Marco Rubio, Rand Paul and Paul Ryan – all voted against the Wednesday compromise that brought the current stand off to an end.

According to Skocpol, the most influential members of the Republican Party do not hold office anyways. Instead, grassroots Tea Party activists and funding groups such as the Senate Conservatives Fund, Freedom Works, Americans for Prosperity and Heritage Action hold the most sway, she said.

“A number of those groups – not all – but a number of them came out against any kind of settlement that would re-open the government,” Skocpol said. “Those groups frighten Republican officeholders because they’re afraid of facing challenges to their right in primary elections.”

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