Deliver Us From the Elements

Norm Ornstein, on the House vote yesterday (my emphasis):

So Boehner and his leadership team are pulling out all the stops, putting his full prestige on the line, to get members to renege on their ironclad pledges. Every speaker has these moments when getting to a bare majority is excruciatingly difficult, and it requires offering inducements or simple begging. But a speaker can only go to the well once or twice to get his or her members to walk the plank. In this case, Boehner’s tactical maneuvers mean that he is asking two dozen or more of his colleagues to walk that plank in return for something that has no chance of becoming law. Instead, it is a vote to give him the barest amount of additional traction to cut a deal for a plan that will dilute even further the package that they are on record condemning for its weakness.

What matters now, I guess, is whether the Speaker in doing so is gently pushing the bulk of his conference towards accepting a compromise in the next round, or whether they will, as Ornstein fears, balk at that next step. Note, by the way, that there’s an interesting switcheroo going on here.

Today’s vote isn’t a tough one for the extreme Bachmann faction, which gets to vote no to everything. That’s going to be about 20 Members, even in a successful vote (indeed, my guess is that Boehner today either just barely succeeds or gets clobbered, perhaps even having the bill pulled if that’s what the whip count says). They’ll love it; they get to pretend that if only everyone had stuck with them and defeated Boehner then the White House would have had no choice but to go for whatever they wanted. Of course, that’s delusional, but that’s what they’re selling and, as far as we can tell, what their constituencies (or their markets) are buying.

It’s certainly a tough vote for the next group, something like 30-80 Republicans, who like to pretend that they’re with the rejectionists but don’t really have their hearts in it. Voting for Boehner today makes it harder for them to keep up that pretense, and leaves them open to charges of flip-flopping and breaking various promises.

The thing is that today’s vote also isn’t all that tough for the remainder of the GOP conference. They’re basically voting for something they support; it may not be their ideal position, but it probably isn’t all that far off. And since (if it passes) they’ll be with almost the entire conference and against, if reports are correct, every single Democrat, they’ll have a good deal of cover from RINO charges. Oh, the crazier of the Tea Partiers will still call it a sell-out vote and all, but it’s not apt to be a really damaging one.

But then, after Boehner gets clobbered in the Senate, it’ll be time to cut the real deal. And if that does happen, we can expect the swing group, that 30-80 that will be with Boehner today if it passes, to oppose the compromise (along with the Bachmann group of 20 or so). The tough votes, on that one, are going to be for the rest of the Republican conference. Voting yes on that one is going to very much be a tough for for them. Not only will they be accepting a substantive package that will be far from the Cut, Cap, and Balance bill that they passed last week, and the Ryan budget they passed earlier, but of course they’re going to be voting with the hated Nancy Pelosi and against something like half of the GOP conference.

Indeed, one way to see what’s happened over the last several months is a long, long process of inoculating those Republicans against the damage from a debt limit vote that they surely knew was eventually going to happen (barring, as always, the possibility that Barack Obama saves them from it by blowing through the debt limit on his own). They got to vote for the Ryan budget, CCB, and soon direct votes on Balanced Budget Amendments. The vote today isn’t quite as good as those, but it does give them yet another example of when they voted with an almost unanimous GOP against a (probably) unanimous Democratic Party.

Of course, this also as meant that all of these mainstream conservative Republicans now have a lot of votes on their record which put them far to the right of the median voter, perhaps even in their own districts. But that, by now, is an old story; if there’s one thing that’s clear about the 112th Congress, it’s that Republican Members are far more concerned about re-nomination than about the general election.

[Cross-posted at A plain blog about politics]

Jonathan Bernstein

Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics, especially the presidency, Congress, parties, and elections.