When Congress concluded the last session of 2013 with the passage of a budget, lightning struck once. It was a sign that the government was ready to move forward with common sense funding at regular intervals, a stark contrast to the last three years of stop-gap budget measures that created calamitous debates about government shutting down and culminated in the 16-day partial shutdown in October. In the final hours of Oct. 16, Congress put that debate to rest.
In the final hours of Feb. 12, however, lightning struck twice.
Yesterday, under the careful shepherding of Speaker of the House John Boehner, Republicans allowed passage of a law that would raise the nation’s debt ceiling through 2015. Twenty-eight Republicans joined 193 Democrats to send the bill to the Senate. That same day, Republican leaders joined Democrats in voting for the bill’s advancement to a final vote, where they promptly voted against it, meaning the bill was sent to Obama’s desk on a 55-43 party line vote.
Beggars can’t be choosers. The messy fashion in which the Senate passed the bill — avoiding a last-minute filibuster by Senator Ted Cruz and the Tea Party wild bunch — is a testament that there are things to work on in Congress. But the raising of the debt ceiling is the most significant thing the 113th Congress has done — not because of what it accomplished, but how it was completed.
Perhaps there’s no better place to begin than Boehner’s words following his decision to allow the bill to pass in the House.
“When you don’t have 218 votes, you have nothing,” he said in a statement.
Read that again. For a man whose party has frivolously voted more than 40 times to repeal the Affordable Care Act and has allowed a government to shut down, Tuesday’s statement is a praise- worthy turnaround. Here, Boehner unapologetically admits that nothing can be gained from a sub-majority faction of voters who can accomplish nothing but government stalemate.
Pessimists on the left will dismiss Boehner’s move as nothing more than a political calculation — they will assert that with a midterm election coming, Boehner’s decision amounts to nothing more than a political one, and that come next January, the Republicans will be singing the same old tune.
But in fact, the mainstream Republican Party might actually be learning something, particularly that fiscal negotiations are not the place to exact concessions from the Democrats, especially given the political backlash they inspire. The argument above, however, breaks down when the variable of the Tea Party is introduced.
If Boehner’s move were merely a political calculation, he never would have made it. Allowing the debt-ceiling bill to sail through ruffled the feathers of nearly every tea bagger in the House and Senate, some of whom called for Boehner to step down as Speaker of the House. And yet in the face of 199 Republicans who voted against the bill, Boehner voted for its passage.
Passing the clean debt-ceiling bill is a brilliant reality check for the Tea Party. In the span of just two months, it is a sign that the mainstream Republican Party, after being thumped in two consecutive presidential elections, failing to oppose Obamacare and being blamed for the shutdown of the government, is trying to move forward, with Boehner at the helm.
The problem for the Republicans is that “mainstream” does not mean “majority.” Though it’s remarkable that Boehner would side with just 28 Republicans to pass the legislation, it’s a bad sign for the future of the party. Even old time leaders such as John McCain recognize the need for the party to adapt to changing U.S. sentiments.
“The American people overwhelmingly rejected the shutdown of the government,” McCain said in a statement, pointing to polls that showed Republicans took the bulk of the blame. “Americans don’t like government, but they don’t want it shut down. It was an object lesson for Republicans.”
How many Republicans learned that lesson? Not many, but Boehner appears to be one of them. In short, Boehner is ahead of the curve, and voting for a raise in the debt ceiling demonstrates his political common sense is evolving at a rate that far exceeds the rest of the Republican Party. It’s up to them to catch up — their political relevance depends on it.
Nathaniel Haas is a sophomore majoring in political science and economics. His column, “State of the Union,” runs Thursdays.