WASHINGTON — Senators may be popping champagne corks to celebrate the end of the government shutdown and an extension of the debt ceiling, but the reality is the deal only sets up another set of crises early next year — and it could be a hell of lot harder for leaders to find their way out of that mess.
Whether it's a newly energized tea party raring for a fight, conservative lawmakers' insistence that they're going to force another showdown in January, or the disaster that is the Obamacare rollout, there's a laundry list of reasons Wednesday's deal is nothing more than a time-out in the war that caused the shutdown in the first place.
"Republicans have an opportunity to reset the debate over the next few months. As the nation's attention turns from Washington politics to the Obamacare disaster, Democrats will have no choice but to reconsider our fair and reasonable proposals to delay the law," Georgia Republican Rep. Tom Graves said in a statement. "As we enter the next phase of the debate and approach new deadlines, Republicans have the facts on our side and the right proposals to help families and communities across America grow and prosper."
Rep. Mick Mulvaney, a key figure in the House conservative wing, argued Wednesday's defeat came about because conservative weren't able to "drive home" the argument that their opposition to Obamacare is based on fundamental "fairness."
"When you're fighting for those types of principles, it's a winner," Mulvaney said.
Asked if there would be any difference the next time Congress faces a shutdown deadline, Mulvaney said, "The natural inclination is to say, 'No, it'll be exactly the same.' But if we can figure out a way to drive home the [fairness] argument …. then the outcome may be different."
But the problems facing Congress between now and the next shutdown run even deeper than a core of conservatives looking to pick another fight.
One of the key problems is that the entire plan pivots off the idea that Rep. Paul Ryan and Sen. Patty Murray can work out a broader budget deal by Dec. 13. In theory, the two sides would use the talks to come to an agreement for the federal government's budget through Oct. 1, 2014, eliminating the possibility of further shutdowns and establishing outlines for future debt limit increase.
Even under the best of circumstances, that would be nearly impossible to do, given how far apart the two chambers are on their respective budgets.
But in the midst of the worst partisan gridlock in recent memory, a budget deal is essentially a pipe dream. Leaders "seem to have a lot of confidence in having a budget conference, I don't think anything is going to come out of having a budget conference," Rep. Raul Labrador told reporters Wednesday.
Perhaps the biggest challenge to avoiding another shutdown and debt crisis is the lack of any real leadership in the House Republican conference. The last 16 days have laid bare the fact that Speaker John Boehner runs his conference only in the most nominal sense, and he and his team have essentially been reduced to nannies trying to contain the political mess their divided conference is making.
After nearly three years in charge of the House, Boehner and company have doggedly stuck to the idea that at some point, some day, their conference would come to terms with the idea that compromise is not a dirty word and that they must accept the best deal they can get instead of blowing everything up.
Whether his conference has in fact learned that lesson may be up for debate, but one thing is not: A dedicated, ideologically motivate knot of 20 to 40 conservatives don't care if that's how "Washington works" and have zero tolerance for the compromisers in their midst.
Boehner has a "circle of 20 people that step up every day and say, 'Can we surrender today, Mr. Speaker? Can we just go away? Can we make it easy?' Just whine and whine and whine. It's not a Surrender Caucus, it's a Whiner Caucus. And all they do is whine about the battle," Rep. Tim Huelskamp said derisively of his more traditionally minded colleagues.
Although members like Huelskamp aren't particularly popular within the Republican conference, they have outsized influence on their colleagues — conservative media outlets and pundits take their cues from Huelskamp and others, and they work very closely with Sen. Ted Cruz and the handful of outside groups that are pushing primary challenges against moderate Republicans.
And despite their collapsing poll numbers and the hand-wringing of their mainstream colleagues, a lot of conservative Republicans in the House believe they're coming out the winners. And, at least in a parochial sense, they're right.
Tea party activists were captivated by the closure of the World War II memorial in Washington — coming to believe the National Parks Service was deliberately keeping veterans out in order to make the shutdown as painful as possible — and have become reengaged for the first time since Mitt Romney's loss last year. Indeed, the angry backlash has already begun amongst conservatives: Rush Limbaugh Wednesday excoriated Republicans, and conservative groups have roundly criticized the Senate deal.
That infusion will certainly give the base the kind of jolt that makes any Republican whose conservative bona fides aren't absolutely rock solid extremely nervous. Although primary losses are extraordinarily rare for incumbents, Republicans in both chambers are perhaps most fearful of being challenged from the right and having a tea party fire ignited against them.
Thanks to the contours of the deal, lawmakers are also going to spend most of the run-up to a shutdown back home in their districts, the vast majority of which have been redrawn to consist of hyper-partisan majorities.
That's not exactly a hotbed of bipartisanship or compromise-minded voters, and Republicans are sure to get an earful from angry tea partiers disgusted with the "Surrender Caucus" and demanding they hold the line.
That kind of an echo chamber is exactly what Republicans faced when they left Washington for the August recess and which helped set the stage for Cruz's one man push to tie Obamacare to funding the government.
And then there's the disaster that is the rollout of Obamacare. Although obscured by the shutdown and debt fights, tens of thousands of Americans across the country have had enormous problems with Healthcare.gov. And whether Democrats like it or not, Obamacare's rocky start has hardened into conventional wisdom, not just within the political class, but across America.
For conservatives, that view of Obamacare won't change, even if implementation quickly turns around and starts to go smoothly, and as a result there will certainly be more pressure on Republicans to hold the line in the next showdown.
Of course, there are those who hope there will be some sort of breakthrough on Capitol Hill that's driven by the political pain the shutdown and debt crises have caused.
"Some in the team said, 'Well if you want us to do X, Y, or Z, then you must not really want to defund the healthcare law. You must not really want whatever it was that they want,'" Rep. Aaron Schock said Wednesday afternoon.
Schock, who founded the Future Caucus with Rep. Tulsi Gabbard as a platform for bipartisanship, added, "I would hope we learn from the past and employ different strategies and tactics that would be more successful in the future."
Even President Obama argued there may have been some change in the Republican conference. "Hopefully everybody's learned there's no reason we can't work on the issues at hand … hopefully that will be the lesson that's internalized," Obama said.
Asked if he thought there was hope for averting a repeat early next year, Sen. Jeff Flake said, "Well, maybe … yes. I think there was 17 years since the last shutdown. That's since the last time the cicadas came out. People tend to forget that you don't accomplish much. Having it be fresher on our minds makes it less likely we'll go through it again."
John Stanton is a national reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New Orleans. In 2014, Stanton was a recipient of the National Press Foundation’s 2014 Dirksen Award for distinguished reporting of Congress.
Contact John Stanton at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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