The Night the GOP Cracked Up

Last-minute machinations in Congress failed to avert a shutdown, but they illustrated the deep divisions that are making Speaker John Boehner's life hell.

Speaker John Boehner leaves the Capitol after 1 a.m. Tuesday. (Jim Bourg/Reuters)

Monday was a frantic day on Capitol Hill, though all the activity ultimately came to nought: A flurry of last-minute legislative feints failed to prevent the government from shutting down at midnight. But in the process, House Republicans' total crackup was on full, public display.

The breaking point was Speaker John Boehner's penultimate proposal, a bill that would have funded the government -- and Obamacare -- while delaying the health-care law's individual mandate and canceling congressional staffers' insurance subsidies. To Boehner, this was a major concession from the House's previous offering -- a delay of the entire law. To the White House and Senate Democrats, it was just as unacceptable and no concession at all.

But within the GOP, it provoked a freakout on both Boehner's right and left flanks. Moderate Republicans, long silent for fear of the party's angry base, correctly viewed the proposal as inexorably leading to shutdown, and threatened to rise up and block it. "This is going nowhere," New York Representative Peter King told National Review. He claimed to have 25 members on his side and demanded that Boehner instead put a "clean" government-funding bill -- one that didn't touch health care -- on the floor of the House.

Meanwhile, conservatives were also in revolt. The Senate Conservatives Fund sent an email to its supporters denouncing "the Republican establishment in Washington" for telling "lies to help them fund Obamacare." It accused GOP leaders of using the mandate delay as cover to disguise the fact that they were allowing the rest of the law to go into effect -- something the group called unacceptable. Obamacare, the email said, must be stopped "dead in its tracks." And it helpfully listed the 29 members of the House who might be amenable to this appeal, a group that included such stalwarts as Michele Bachmann, Louie Gohmert, Steve King, Joe Wilson, and Ted Yoho.

If there are, as the Washington Examiner's Byron York has reported, about 30 conservatives making Boehner's life hell, these are surely them. Representative Devin Nunes, a California Republican, told the New York Times that it would not be enough to term his hard-line colleagues lemmings, "because jumping to your death is not enough" for them. He termed them, instead, "lemmings with suicide vests."

But the various right-wing pressure groups that had pushed the defund-Obamacare quest weren't unified against the proposal. While Heritage Action joined the Senate Conservatives Fund in opposition, the Republican Study Committee and the Club for Growth urged members to vote in favor. Suddenly it was impossible even for the most pure-of-heart Tea Party Republicans to remain in good standing with their many monitors on the right. When Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, one of the original backers of the defund movement, opined that a shutdown was probably not a good idea, RedState's Erick Erickson tweeted, "Rand Paul now wants to fund Obamacare. Sigh." Texas Senator Ted Cruz also seemed to endorse Boehner's gambit. If even Rand Paul and Ted Cruz were going squishy, was there anyone conservatives could still trust?

In the end, neither the moderate revolt nor the conservative freakout got much traction with the exhausted House Republicans. After Boehner assured the moderates he had a plan, they mostly went along; only King and Pennsylvania Representative Charlie Dent, another outspoken critic of the far right, voted no. And only four of the conservatives, including Bachmann, joined them.

But as the shutdown dawned Tuesday and Boehner groped for a way forward, his family feud was rawer and more visible than ever. There isn't one House GOP; there are, rather, several warring Republican tribes, and the upshot may be, as Representative Don Young, an Alaska Republican, put it, that Republicans "don't have the votes to do anything."