House Republicans should consider themselves lucky to have wound up empty-handed after triggering a 16-day government shutdown and threatening to turn the United States into a deadbeat borrower. Had Senate leaders not rushed to the rescue, cutting a deal on a bill to reopen the government and lift the debt limit before Thursday's deadline, the damage to the economy could have been enormous — with the political fallout landing mainly on the House GOP, especially its uncompromising cadre of tea party absolutists. The question for lawmakers now is whether they learned the obvious lesson from the latest manufactured crisis: It's impossible to govern from the extreme.
The agreement that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) worked out Wednesday is, in essence, the same one that has been on the table since before the shutdown began Oct. 1. The government will stick to the fiscal 2013 spending limits though Jan. 15, and the Treasury will be able to borrow money through Feb. 7. Meanwhile, the two chambers will convene a conference committee on their competing budget resolutions for fiscal year 2014, with a deadline of mid-December for resolving their differences.
The measure includes none of the provisions demanded by House Republicans: no delay or defunding of the 2010 healthcare law, no wiping out the health benefits of lawmakers or their aides. In other words, the House GOP got bupkis for the crisis it precipitated by holding the entire government hostage to an attack on Obamacare.
And what did we get? Another blow to the struggling economy. Economists say the shutdown cost billions of dollars in lost wages and consumer spending. Investors were rattled at the notion that Congress might deliberately not pay some of the country's bills. And the vaunted U.S. democratic process took a beating globally.
Congress could have averted the fiasco entirely if the House and Senate had negotiated a compromise budget for fiscal 2014 early in the year, as Democrats sought. But the House GOP leadership bet it could multiply its leverage by putting off the talks until it could threaten to shut down the government and stiff some creditors. Then Republicans frittered away whatever leverage they might have gained by following the tea party's lead and trying to roll back the healthcare law, which they simply did not have the votes to do.
Most Americans strongly opposed the shutdown, and according to one Democratic polling firm, they're taking their anger out on the GOP. Also, a new Pew Research survey found that nearly half the country views the tea party unfavorably now, up from a quarter in 2010. These numbers should motivate mainstream Republicans in Congress to try to accomplish something meaningful — maybe even the elusive "grand bargain" on spending, taxes and entitlements that would address Washington's long-term deficit and debt problems.
Such a deal won't be possible unless Democrats show more flexibility than they have in the past too. One encouraging sign Wednesday was the statement by a bipartisan group of 40 Democrats and Republicans supporting the Reid-McConnell compromise and pledging to keep working together on a long-term deficit reduction plan.
Yet tea party Republicans are getting a very different message. The Pew survey shows that the episode boosted the popularity of Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), one of the instigators of the "defund Obamacare" effort, among Republicans in general and tea party followers in particular — even as it hurt him with other groups. Several like-minded House Republicans blamed the "Surrender Caucus" within the GOP, suggesting they could have won the legislative tussle had they only kept fighting. Kind of like the Vietnam War.
In other words, Wednesday's agreement may just set up more brinkmanship in 2014, when the looming party primaries will drive members even further from the political center. To avoid the increasingly destructive dysfunction, the two sides have to strike a broad budget deal before the end of the year. That won't be easy, even though the deficit has been shrinking. But having seen what happens when the Shutdown Caucus hijacks the Republican Party, lawmakers on both sides should be eager to avoid a rerun.