Why Republicans Are Surrendering on the Debt Ceiling

In the three years they've been in power, Tea Partiers have gone through the stages of grief—from denial to acceptance of how Washington works.


The first wave of Tea Party lawmakers strode into Congress in 2011 on a wave of denial and anger. They were angry at President Obama and business as usual in Washington. But they were also in denial about their power—or rather powerlessness—to change it.

Three years later, the right-wingers have progressed through the stages of grief (which are not real, incidentally, when it comes to grieving). Now, in the debt-ceiling debate currently under way in Washington, we have proof they’ve reached the final stage: acceptance.

Yes, as you may have heard, the debt ceiling needs raising once again, sparking the usual fear and dread among people who follow Congress, a category consisting largely of masochists, reporters, masochistic reporters, and market analysts. But this time, it looks like it will happen with none of the panic that has attended similar legislation in recent years.

That's a big change. Back in 2011, when the House Republican majority and the Tea Party wave that helped empower it were new, this necessity led to a dramatic showdown between the White House and the House GOP when conservatives torpedoed the deal Speaker John Boehner and the White House had been trying to negotiate. (This version of events is disputed.) Though default was averted at the last minute, the country came so close that its credit was downgraded.

The 2011 showdown was revealing. Previously, the idea of default was so unthinkable that observers and markets didn’t consider it a possibility. But the confrontation showed how far the new House majority was willing to go. They weren’t looking for compromise; they wanted the whole loaf. They weren’t just mad. They were convinced—erroneously—that they had the power to undo Obama's agenda entirely from their perch controlling one-half of one-third of the federal government. They were in denial.

The next stage in the grief paradigm is bargaining, and this accurately describes the magical thinking that accompanied the next few rounds of House fights. Conservatives, holding out for a better deal and egged on by ideological activist groups, voted down "must-pass" legislation like 2013’s fiscal-cliff deal and the farm bill. They didn’t get a better deal—they just delayed the inevitable result and made everybody mad at them. Still, they remained convinced their leaders were wrong about the necessity of compromise. And so their insistence that defunding Obamacare be the price for funding the government led to last October’s shutdown.

The shutdown was not fun for anyone, especially Republicans. Even the hardliners who’d seen it as their mission to break china and disrupt business as usual felt the heat. The deal they accepted to end the shutdown was actually worse than what they could have gotten beforehand. Denial gave way to depression. As multiple pieces of major legislation passed without incident, the doldrums began to lift. A sort of peace descended. The debt ceiling approached, and some of the House’s most adamant conservatives greeted it with a remarkable new serenity. Two congressmen who did not vote for Boehner for speaker, Justin Amash and Raul Labrador, told the Washington Post they’d just as soon skip the “theater” and “move on.” Representative Michele Bachmann advocated “pragmatism,” saying, “Most of us don’t think it’s the time to fight.”

At a meeting of House Republicans Monday evening, leaders tried to get the caucus to agree on a strategy of demanding, as part of the debt-ceiling hike, that cuts to military pensions imposed by December's budget agreement be rolled back. (Yes, in a rather rich turn of events, the GOP would have demanded more government spending, though it would have supposedly been offset by other cuts in the future.) This gambit failed to find consensus, so on Tuesday morning, leaders announced they would seek an unconditional, or "clean," debt-ceiling increase. The vote could come as soon as Tuesday.

This is how Washington works: Certain things have to get done, and you try to get the best deal you can, and then move on to the next thing. This is basically what Boehner has been trying to tell his caucus for the last three years, but they had to figure it out for themselves. Now that they’ve achieved acceptance, will Boehner's job get easier? Or will a new wave of mad-as-hell representatives rise up in protest?