Since January 5, 2011, for John Boehner (R-OH), his position as Speaker of the House has been just a title in words not in deed. The words are those of the 1789 US Constitution. The Speaker presides over the proceedings of the House and is the highest position in the House leadership. However, the deed is that Boehner does not demonstrate leadership of the majority party. The Tea Party wing that enabled the GOP to achieve its majority status has also rendered it factious. Once again it has compromised Boehner’s speakership by its handling of a Continuing Resolution to fund the government. Once again, oblivious to public opinion, House action threatens us with a government shutdown.
Tea Party Republicans defied their leaders and brought down a bill to keep the government running after September 30 because it did not meet their demands to make deeper spending cuts. In the past, disaster relief rushed out of Congress with strong backing from both parties. Not this time. Instead, the House Republicans made it the focus of a political issue: offsetting the cost of funding the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) with cuts elsewhere.
The bill failed. Boehner and his operatives cobbled together support for a slightly different but essentially similar bill. They brought some recalcitrant freshmen on board in video and photo opportunities with the old pros to recite sound bites, and then narrowly passed a stopgap bill two days later.
“We are now watching the Tea Party shutdown movie for the third time this year,” said Senator Richard Durbin (D-IL) of the House not passing the CR. “The ending isn’t surprising,” Durbin said on MSNBC. “It isn’t even interesting anymore. They can’t get together the basic Republican votes on the House side to even pass the continuing resolution they agreed to just a few weeks ago, let alone some disaster aid for a country that’s been hard-hit by a lot of disasters.”
A Continuing Resolution is a temporary measure designed to buy time for negotiations to continue when the fiscal year ends. In the past, as with raising the debt ceiling, passing a stopgap was routine business. It becomes necessary when the House and Senate fail to agree on appropriations bills to fund government for a whole fiscal year, as is the case. Tea Party Republicans said they believed their party should push for deeper cuts at every turn. 50 of them signed a letter to Boehner calling for those deeper budget cuts and when those demands were not met, 48 of them voted against their own party’s bill.
So did Democrats, but for different reasons. Former Speaker of the House and now House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) told reporters that Democrats believed disaster funds were for emergencies and no offset spending cuts would be acceptable to her members. Asked whether there might be any offset that House Democrats would back, Pelosi said, “I think I answered that question: there has never been an offset for disaster assistance.”
Boehner and other House leaders had to rewrite the measure to appease Democrats and to appeal to the Tea Party wing of their own party. Democrats saw the amount of disaster assistance as inadequate and objected to the Republicans’ insistence on offsetting some of the cost with cuts elsewhere. They remained nearly united against the measure. So, Boehner cracked the proverbial whip with his members and the revised bill passed by seven votes to go to the Senate in time for the House to go on recess.
“The House bill is not an honest effort at compromise,” said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV). “It fails to provide the relief that our fellow Americans need as they struggle to rebuild their lives in the wake of floods, wildfires and hurricanes, and it will be rejected by the Senate.” Saying that he had hoped House Republicans would move toward the middle Reid said, “Instead, they moved even further toward the Tea Party.” The Senate voted 59 to 36 to table the House bill, which effectively killed it.