The Interior bill came out of the Appropriations Committee on a sharply partisan basis, fracturing decades of tradition of bipartisan cooperation on the panel. This bill cut spending in popular areas sharply, but even more controversially added riders to curtail executive authority in areas like public lands and the environment—ensuring no Democratic votes for the bill on the House floor. But garnering a majority from Republicans alone means finding ways to capture the share of the conference who do not want to vote for any bill that involves government spending. In this case, the effort to capture that group meant offering Southern conservatives a vote on allowing Confederate flags on public property—the same week as the deeply emotional funeral services in Charleston, and a huge embarrassment for Republican House leaders. The bill was pulled and has not reemerged—nor have other appropriations bills as the clock ticks before the new fiscal year begins. And, of course, even if the bills make it through the House, they have to do the same in the Senate, and be reconciled, all by September 30. Now, there is the added complication, the growing, vociferous demand, to blow up funding for Planned Parenthood, with Cruz among others demanding a shutdown, if necessary, to accomplish that goal.
The leaders’ solution to avoid a shutdown is to punt—a continuing resolution for most or all of the spending bills, ostensibly for just a few weeks. But there is no reason to believe that the dilemma they face will ease in October or November. That leaves two alternatives. The first would be a grand bargain, like the one achieved in 2013 by Paul Ryan and Patty Murray, that would effectively ameliorate the sequester cuts for both defense and domestic programs, and probably continue significant funding, perhaps with some modifying language, for Planned Parenthood. The second option would be passing a continuing resolution for much or all of the fiscal year. But the former, by reducing the sequester, would be seen as a sellout by a swatch of Tea Party lawmakers. And the latter would mean spending continued at the previous year’s levels.
For Tea Party conservatives, the sequester cuts, draconian as they would be for domestic programs across the board, were not enough to begin with. A continuing resolution wipes those out, meaning total defeat on the cutting-spending front. All perpetrated by their own leaders! And, in the House, passing either a grand bargain or a continuing resolution almost certainly will happen with far more Democrats supporting it than Republicans, adding to the rage angry-populist members feel toward their Speaker.
Remember, all of this will play out in October just as the presidential nominating process is really heating up. As it unfolds, expect the slew of angry-populist presidential candidates, some of them sitting senators, including Trump, Cruz, Mike Huckabee, Rick Santorum, Ben Carson, Carly Fiorina, and others, to push Congress to toughen up, stare Obama and his Democrats down, and push for confrontation. They will do the same, most likely, with the debt ceiling, which has to be raised by November or December, putting additional pressure on McConnell, Boehner et al. And they will join the chorus, raising bloody hell as the primaries and caucuses begin about the perfidy of their own establishment leaders, getting even more distance from a Washington where Congress is run by Republicans.
Two intersecting roads explain a lot about today’s American politics. One, of course, is Pennsylvania Avenue, running from the Capitol to the White House. The other is the long and winding road to a party’s presidential nomination. The last week or so has demonstrated that the intersections can lead to collisions. Brace yourselves for more to come.