Who is running the Republican Party? Who is calling the shots? The answer to that question will have a huge say in whether or not the federal government shuts down next month.
The Republican Party is in the midst of a power struggle. House Speaker John Boehner, Representative Eric Cantor and Senator Mitch McConnell are desperately trying to guide the ship. But since taking office two months ago, it has been the tea party freshmen that have controlled the message.
It started when Boehner brought to the floor the extension of three components of the Patriot Act; measures whose passage was considered a slam dunk for Republicans. That was until tea party freshman embarrassed party leadership by siding with Democrats and defeating the bills.
Next, the Republicans’ offered their eagerly anticipated proposal for spending cuts. The leadership proposed a bill which slashed $40 billion in cuts. Tea Party members protested that the cuts weren’t deep enough. The final version cut more than $60 billion.
Then came the $450 million dollar contract for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter engine. Everyone knew that Boehner wanted funding for the contract included in the spending bill because the engine was manufactured just outside Boehner’s district. But tea party members defied the leader and voted to cut the engine contract from the spending bill.
All of which is much ado about nothing when it comes to actually lowering the deficit. The proposed cuts are all focused on discretionary spending which makes up only 12% of the budget. Noticeably absent are any substantive cuts on the remaining 88%: defense, Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security.
Looming in the distance is March 4th. That is the day that the current Continuing Resolution for funding the government expires. If a budget is not passed or at the very least the continuing resolution is not extended, the government will shut down. That means all federal services will stop, social security checks will not be mailed, veterans benefits will not be paid and thousands of government employees will be laid off. Tea Party freshman have flatly stated that they will not vote for another extension even if it means shutting down the government.
Will Republicans really shut down the government? In 1995, under the leadership of Speaker Newt Gingrich, Republicans defied Bill Clinton and shut down the government for 27 days. Current Speaker Boehner says he will not vote for a budget or an extension under current spending limits. All it cost them was the next election. But Boehner is no Gingrich and recent events tell us Boehner is not in control.
Times are a bit different than they were in 1995. For one thing we are in the middle of two wars. Nothing says “we support the troops” like “sorry, no paychecks, no disability benefits and, oh yeah, no more bullets.” We are also just barely crawling out of a deep recession. Nothing bolsters the economy like laying off thousands of government workers. And Democrats are already preparing campaign ads showing Republicans ranting on the floor while the announcer states “these are the guys that withheld your social security checks.”
Still one should not question the Republicans’ resolve. After all less than two months ago, bowing to tea party pressure, they withheld unemployment benefits from needy families as blackmail in order to get tax breaks for millionaires and billionaires.
March 4th is fast approaching. It will be interesting.