For the first time since the Clinton-Gingrich budget wars of 1995-96, hundreds of thousands of federal workers may soon be furloughed without pay, while others will be asked to work for free. The U.S. House of Representatives sent a bill to the U.S. Senate that would temporarily fund the government on the condition that the health care law be delayed for a year. The House knows well the Senate will strip this provision from the bill.
Unless some last-minute compromise is reached, the government is unfunded after midnight Monday.
The path forward isn't clear, because this fight isn't like the one that came before. The Senate's minority leader is facing a stiff Tea Party primary challenge. The House's unruly conservative caucus has weakened the majority leader's control.
Senator Ted Cruz, in his quest to destroy the health care law or, failing that, to shut down government, is the standard bearer for the Tea Party and the defund-Obamacare campaign. Last week, he spoke for 21 hours against a bill that contained everything he wanted. It wasn't a filibuster. Per Senate procedural rules, he wasn't actually stopping the body from deliberating on anything. Yet the empty talkathon won him both fearful allies and critics. Senator Bob Corker, a Republican from Tennessee, accused him of naked attention seeking. Senator John Burr, the Republican from North Carolina, said Cruz's plan to shut down the government was "the dumbest idea I've ever heard." The list of fellow Republicans he's alienated goes on.
Yet Tom Cole, House GOP deputy whip, also credited Cruz, if credit for a shutdown is what the senator wants, saying he "played a lot of role in where we are now." And Representative John Culberson, a Houston Republican who grotesquely channeled Flight 93 passenger Todd Beamer when he shouted "Let's roll!" before the vote, said Cruz performed "a huge service for the nation."
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It's tough to discern how much of Cruz's rhetoric is theater, and how much of it he actually believes. But on Sunday's Meet the Press, he said he'd been studying the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, World War II, the Cold War and President John F. Kennedy's call to action for a lunar landing. They were not so different, Cruz said, from his quest to defund the health care law.
"At every stage, there were voices of conventional wisdom who say, 'This can't be done.' And at every stage the American people rose to the occasion," he said.
Cruz so fervently believes in the righteousness of this cause that he doesn't think the country will hold his side accountable for a government shutdown. But fellow Republicans like Representative John Boehner must remember what happened 17 years ago. The public didn't take too kindly to games of brinksmanship, even though the economy was then experiencing the longest period of peacetime expansion ever. The GOP nonetheless paid dearly in the following elections.
Today, they're betting on shutdown again, even as wages are stagnant and the echoes of the subprime mortgage crisis still reverberate. But Cruz expects a different result as he leads his party off of a cliff.