US shutdown drama ends but farce goes on

The deal that reopened the government has the potential for new conflict next year

The Korean War Veterans’ Memorial in Washington DC was reopened to the public yesterday as the White House moved quickly to get the government running after a 16-day shutdown. Photograph: Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

The Korean War Veterans’ Memorial in Washington DC was reopened to the public yesterday as the White House moved quickly to get the government running after a 16-day shutdown. Photograph: Kevin Lamarque/Reuters


There was a bizarre moment late on Wednesday night as the House of Representatives voted on a Senate deal to end the 16-day United States government shutdown and raise the country’s borrowing limit.

A stenographer in the chamber was dragged from the House after ranting about God, the Freemasons and a “house divided” from the dais.

It was one of the final acts in a chaotic political drama that played out over the past three weeks and summed up the madness that has turned the routine performance of US government into a farce.

The crisis triggered by House Republicans intent on destroying the president’s signature healthcare law put hundreds of thousands of government employees out of work for 16 days, sucked an estimated $24 billion out of the economy and terrified world leaders over a potentially calamitous default.

And what is the outcome? The crisis showed that Republicans picked a fight they were never going to win and that the deal ending the impasse is only a sticking plaster – it has the potential to set up another confrontation early next year.

Tea Party
The passage of the Bill brokered in the Democrat-controlled Senate marked a defeat for House Republicans, and particularly for the hardline faction of Tea Party conservatives. They pushed House speaker John Boehner into a reversal to launch a twin-pronged attack on Obamacare – first by refusing to continue to fund government beyond September 30th and, second, by delaying votes on a debt-limit increase.

Boehner had warned in recent months against the party’s attempt to gut the three-year- old law that extends health insurance to those without cover, by threatening a government shutdown over the budget and a potential default over the debt ceiling. The Republican from Ohio knew the party would end up carrying most of the blame for a shutdown. He has been proven right.

A poll published by the Washington Post and ABC News as the Senate deal was being negotiated showed the longer the shutdown went on the greater was the blame attributed to Republicans. The most recent poll suggested 74 per cent of Americans blamed Republicans in Congress for the political impasse, compared with 61 per cent who pointed the finger at Democrats and 53 per cent at Mr Obama.

The Republican strategy was exposed when infighting undermined Boehner’s capacity to unite moderates and conservatives in the House. He tried to devise a last-gasp attempt on Tuesday to influence the Senate proposal drafted in a fleeting moment of bipartisanship in the upper chamber.

Few Republicans, not even Tea Party activists, were willing to threaten a default in this high-stakes game but divisions among House Republicans were too great to allow Boehner to make further demands that would avoid a default on their terms.

In the end he caved and 27 Senate Republicans and 87 House Republicans sided with Democrats to end the shutdown and avert a possible default.

The only concession won on the Affordable Care Act was that applicants would have to verify their income to show they are entitled to health insurance under Mr Obama’s law.

“This package is a joke compared to what we could have gotten if we had a more reasonable approach,” said Republican senator Lindsey Graham from South Carolina.

“For the party this is a moment of self-evaluation – we are going to assess how we got here. If we continue down this path we are really going to hurt the Republican Party long- term.”

The topsy-turvy electoral landscape has created conflicting political ambitions within the party. At a local level, Republicans must adopt deeply conservative positions in gerrymandered congressional districts to fend off far-right primary challengers that, at a national level, alienate moderate voters.

This state of play improves their chances of retaining control of the House in 2014 but weakens their chances of regaining the White House in 2016. For House Republicans, self-preservation wins out, leading to the type of dysfunctional government witnessed over the past three weeks.

Congress may have stepped back from the brink but it is only a brief respite. The law signed by the president funds the government until January 15th only and raises the debt ceiling until February 7th. Both sides must sit down to hammer out a longer-term government funding deal by mid-December.

Recriminations over a battle lost and unpopular tactics may soften the Republican stance but the leadership is still intent on derailing Obamacare, which the president and Democrats will not allow to happen. Boehner accepted that this round was lost but pointed, ominously, to the longer fight.

“Our drive to stop the train wreck that is the president’s healthcare law will continue,” he said.

“We will rely on aggressive oversight that highlights the law’s massive flaws and smart, targeted strikes that split the legislative coalition the president has relied upon to force his healthcare law on the American people.”