Thursday, October 10, 2013

This shut down doesn’t have to be a showdown

This is a guest post by Sean Long. Sean is a junior political science major at Notre Dame and Co-President of College Democrats.

Congress can take a better approach to ending the government shutdown if Democrats and Republicans focus on interests, not positions.

Keeping in mind that congressional vote counts aren’t set in stone, here is a snapshot of how government shutdown negotiations currently stand in the House of Representatives: All 200 Democratic members support a “clean continuing resolution (CR),” meaning a bill that would temporarily continue normal funding of the government with no changes to Obamacare. About 175 of the 232 House Republicans, as Byron York of the Washington Examiner writes, would vote for a “clean” CR if House Speaker John Boehner offered one. Another 20 to 30 House Republicans are willing to compromise, but fear a primary challenger from the right if they “cave” to Democrats and fail to defund or delay Obamacare. This leaves about 30 Tea Party Republicans who will not negotiate on a CR to reopen the government unless it also either defunds or delays Obamacare.

While the votes of 200 Democrats and 175 Republicans on a clean CR would be enough to pass the House with over 85 percent support, Boehner has thus far refused to budge unless he can meet the Hastert Rule, an unofficial rule which states passing legislation in the House requires a majority of the Speaker’s party to support a bill before it comes to the floor. For example, it is not enough for a bill to have a simple majority of at least 217 votes, unless a majority of that majority comes from the Speaker’s party. This informal governing tactic has been followed religiously since the 1990s by Republican Speakers to maintain their speakerships. Given this impasse, can Congress come to agreement?

Compromise is possible: while the pro-Obamacare and anti-Obamacare positions are irreconcilable, there is room for a negotiated outcome that meets a majority of key stakeholders’ interests. First, there’s an important near-universal interest that should drive the negotiations: the government should reopen. Second, Boehner’s key interest is job security — he wants to retain his speakership, which given unified Democratic opposition would only require an achievable 16 or so House Republican defectors to put Boehner below the 217 vote threshold. Third, there are 20 to 30 House Republicans whose interests lie in job security because if they ‘cave’ to Obamacare, they fear a primary opponent from the right who might threaten their seat in next November’s elections. Fourth, House Democrats want to maintain party unity. Minority Leader Pelosi and Minority Whip Hoyer have kept their 200-member caucus unified throughout these negotiations. For Democrats, a cherry on top, a welcome but inessential side benefit, would be to undermine the Tea Party’s influence in Congress while maintaining their unity.

So, can Democrats and Republicans in Congress find common cause? The short answer is yes. Boehner can pass a clean CR — which all 200 House Democrats and at least 175 Republicans support — to end the shutdown (Interest 1). However, with ostensibly more than 16 House Republicans voting against this, Boehner risks losing his speakership (Interest 2). While unlikely, the Democratic leadership could pledge to Boehner the unified support from congressional Democrats (Interest 4) in the event of a Tea Party challenge to Boehner’s speakership. This is a win-win for the Democrats. They can market this as a moment when ‘Democratic lawmakers put the interests of 800 thousand hard-working Americans before partisan politics,’ and also get the cherry on top by taking Tea Party hard-liners out of the equation. The 30-member group can be reduced to just that: seven percent of a 438-member body.

Finally, how to ease Republican fears of job insecurity in next fall’s congressional elections? The other 20 to 30 Republicans, those willing to compromise yet fearful of primary challengers, can do whatever they want; if they vote against a clean CR, they can tell their constituents they stood by their morals and never ‘caved’ to Democrats. These members get what they want — an end to the shutdown — while not giving ultra-conservative donors and voters ammunition to oppose them in a primary (Interest 3). Not everyone’s interests will be met, but it will be enough to reopen the government.

While this doesn’t address the looming debt-ceiling showdown, it nevertheless offers one solution to a currently unsolved problem. However, this can only be achieved if the Democratic leadership does the unexpected and backs Speaker Boehner for the greater good of 800 thousand unpaid federal workers — a number that includes the Capitol police officers who risked their lives last week even though they are unpaid under the shutdown.

On the eve of the shutdown, Speaker Boehner stated, “I say to the president: This is not about me. This is not about Republicans in Congress. It’s about fairness for the American people.” A scenario exists where nearly everyone except the 30 Tea Party Republicans can have some interests met. Lawmakers must see that this is not a zero-sum game.

In fact, this isn’t a game at all.

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