My late, beloved grandmother loved to play poker. Her name was Doris. She wasn't a World Series of Poker-level player. As a 5-year-old, I once helped her by pointing out that she was about to fold with a full house. The other ladies seated around the folding table in the rumpus room of her co-op building were none too pleased when I did.
One thing you ought not to do in poker is repeatedly overplay your hand--and the same maxim applies to politics. House Republican conservatives, known as the so-called "Freedom Caucus," have done so repeatedly. This week, when the players in Congress finally laid down their cards, one woman--a grandmother of eight, in fact--took the pot. Her name is Nancy. Nancy Pelosi.
The House of Representatives is currently, er, blessed with the largest Republican majority since the 1928 elections brought us President Herbert Hoover. Nevertheless, this week saw the passage of a budget deal where the members of that selfsame Republican majority voted no by a more than 2 to 1 margin. As for the minority party, 187 Democrats voted in favor. None said no. (Note: the Senate passed the deal 64-35, with all thirty-five no votes coming from members of the Republican majority.)
Let's be clear about something: This was not a progressive budget. However, it is a significant improvement over the budgetary levels set by existing law that was put in place by the truly awful sequester--a barrier not easy to overcome given Republican majorities in the House and Senate. The New York Times called the deal a "clear victory" for President Obama, who said he was "pretty happy" about it. Jared Bernstein, considered a strong progressive and Vice President Biden's former chief economic adviser, said of the deal: "there's a lot in here the White House likes and not much they don't."
Conservatives, on the other hand, hated it. Rep. Peter Roskam of Illinois called it "truly terrifying" and a "zombie budget." Washington Examiner managing editor Philip Klein declared: "This is what Republican surrender looks like ... this isn't compromise. This is utter capitulation." Rush Limbaugh proclaimed that he was "literally infuriated" by this "infuriating budget deal." If once is good, twice is even more nice.
Most interestingly, the presumptive incoming Speaker of the House, Paul Ryan, tried to have it both ways at the time, voting yes on the deal, but saying the process that created it "stinks." And, like Charlie Brown--who thinks that this time Lucy really will hold the football in place so that he can kick it off into the horizon--the Freedom Caucus actually believes it when Ryan says that next time, under his leadership, things will be different.
The thing is, this is how it's been for a while now in the Republican-led House: Namely, the right wing pushes too far and forces the speaker to work with Democrats. The extreme conservatives--who formally organized themselves earlier this year as the Freedom Caucus (the already existing group for House Republicans wanting to designate themselves as conservatives, the Republican Study Group, wasn't conservative enough for these guys)--have no one but themselves to blame. Time after time, they have sought to use the fact that Republicans on their own cannot pass legislation without them to force the Republican leadership to do their bidding. And time after time, the extreme conservatives have failed.
In 2013, just about every piece of major legislation passed out of the House violated the "Hastert Rule." In other words, the law passed even though it lacked majority support among Republicans. The most important one was the fiscal cliff deal that set new, permanent income tax brackets and pushed the tax code in a more progressive direction. Only a couple of weeks before that deal passed--with Republicans opposing it almost 2 to 1 while Democrats supported it 9 to 1--House Republicans put the kibosh on Boehner's initial compromise proposal. That proposal would have been more conservative (i.e., it preserved more income tax cuts for the wealthy) than the final deal Boehner ended up making. Way to go, right-wingers!
You may also remember that these same right-wingers allied with Sen. Ted Cruz to shut down the government in the fall of 2013. Ultimately, they lost when a budget deal passed even though conservative groups such as Heritage Action, FreedomWorks, and the Club for Growth all strenuously objected. Sixty-two House Republicans voted no that time, compared with only 32 Democrats.
The final shoe to drop after Republicans backed down on the shutdown was the vote in February 2014 for a clean extension of the debt limit, i.e., one without any of the demands Republicans made in return for not defaulting on our country's debt. That vote saw all but 28 House Republicans vote no. A major bill passed a Republican-dominated House with only 12 percent of Republicans voting yes. Think about that.
House Republican conservatives vowed that they wouldn't let such a thing happen again this fall. No how, no way. With another debt ceiling and budget crisis looming, they made their stance quite clear. They would rather push John Boehner out of his speaker's chair than allow him to stay in it and push through another deal. So they pushed him out.
Of course, Boehner cleaned up the barn before turning over the gavel to Mr. Ryan, leaving the latter's hands clean. "I didn't want [the incoming speaker] to walk into a dirty barn full of you know what," Boehner said earlier this week, after sealing the deal that the Freedom Caucus promised would happen only over their dead bodies. Speaker Boehner managed to get all of the you know what on to his shovel before throwing out it right out of that barn--and right into the Freedom Caucus members' faces.
In reality, this was where the story was headed all along. In July 2013, back when Democrats still had a majority in the Senate, I predicted that Boehner would ultimately have no choice but to work with Democratic Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi to pass a decent budget and a clean debt ceiling bill out of the House in an agreement "that would allow Boehner to remain the titular speaker at the head of a coalition of Democrats and a few dozen not-insane Republicans."
And that's exactly what Speaker Boehner has been since announcing his impending resignation. Freed from the yoke of the extremists to his right, he has passed major legislation largely with Democratic votes. I added two years ago that, "Rep. Pelosi strikes me as the kind of person committed enough to substance to let someone else hold the gavel while she wields the real power and does what is right for the American people." I stand by that assessment.
As for Boehner, we can say that, in the end, he put his country over his party at a time when he could simply have walked away without making any kind of deal. And Paul Ryan? He'll soon find out what it's like to lead a group where one faction, when given a choice between half a loaf and none, decides to blow up the oven.
Nancy Pelosi, on the other hand, has shown that no one in Congress plays the game as well as she does. Even if the results are far from perfect, the American people can at least be grateful for that.