At almost literally the 11th hour, Congress approved legislation to end a costly 16-day partial government shutdown and avert the potentially greater disaster of a default on federal obligations.
Cobbled together by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., the deal is minimalist. It funds the federal government through Jan. 15 and authorizes the Treasury to borrow through Feb. 7 – or longer, if the department makes use of “extraordinary measures.”
It also creates new fraud-prevention procedures for Obamacare. That’s about all Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and his followers in the House of Representatives have to show for their effort to “defund” the health care law by shutting down the government. As many of his GOP colleagues foresaw, what Mr. Cruz billed as a principled stand for freedom and against welfare-statism was actually the political equivalent of a toddler’s tantrum. “This package is a joke compared to what we could have gotten if we had a more reasonable approach,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., told The Washington Post on Wednesday. “But live and learn; we’ll be doing this in a couple months.”
Alas, Mr. Graham is right. The Senate-made compromise buys only a short interval of peace, during which a House-Senate conference committee is supposed to come up with a longer-term fiscal fix, including – we hope – entitlement reforms and a more rational alternative to the across-the-board “sequester.” Given recent history, though, it is all too possible that Congress will fail to agree and will deliver the country to the brink of another shutdown or default.
Much will depend on whether Republicans really do “live and learn,” as Mr. Graham suggested. For both the GOP and the country, the silver lining in this debacle could be a measure of clarification. Experience has shown that a no-compromise strategy is doomed to fail, in both political and policy terms. Those who advocated it within the GOP camp, and effectively neutered House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, must be brought to heel by cooler-headed leaders in the caucus.
This won’t be easy, in part because a well-funded apparatus headed by outside groups, such as Club for Growth and Heritage Action, stands behind the Cruz faction, threatening to support a primary challenge to any House member or senator who does not toe its line. Though hardly unconstitutional, as some have suggested, the groups’ brand of politics is what you might call counter-constitutional. Contrary to the Founding Fathers’ purpose, which was to minimize the power and influence of factions, this unelected minority exerts pressure through indirect channels, purposely disrupting consensus and defeating compromise.
The past few weeks have showed that the GOP ultra-right cannot be appeased. That leaves the party no responsible choice but to confront it. In that respect, Wednesday’s deal gave Mr. Boehner and other GOP leaders something they little deserve but greatly need – a do-over.