Belmont Club

The Play Within the Play

It’s easy with media attention focused on Hillary’s Benghazi testimony and overseas war news to forget the drama gripping Congress.  The drama comes in three parts.  The three parts make up a story whose ending has not been written yet.

The first is a refusal by two GOP presidential candidates and a Senator: Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio and Senator Mike Lee to support a budget bill which only partly repeals Obamacare using the budget reconciliation process, arguing it does not go far enough.  The “budget reconciliation process”, for those who may be unfamiliar with it, is a parliamentary process that allows a bill to pass through both houses with only 51 votes in the Senate instead of 60.  It was used to pass Obamacare, as Brian Sussman recalls.

The Senate at that time had 60 Democrats, just enough to pass Obamacare. However after the bill passed the Senate, Democrat Senator Ted Kennedy died. In his place, Massachusetts elected Republican Scott Brown. That meant that if the House made any changes to the bill the Senate wouldn’t have the necessary number of votes to pass the amended bill (because they knew no Republicans would vote for Obamacare). So Senate Leader Harry Reid cut a deal with Pelosi: the House would pass the Senate bill without any changes if the Senate agreed to pass a separate bill by the House that made changes to the Senate version of Obamacare. This second bill was called the Reconciliation Act of 2010. So the House passed PPACA, the Senate bill, as well as their Reconciliation Act. At this point PPACA was ready for the President to sign, but the Senate still needed to pass the Reconciliation Act from the House. …

Remember that the Senate only had 59 votes to pass the Reconciliation Act since Republican Scott Brown replaced Democrat Ted Kennedy. Therefore in order to pass the Act Senate Democrats decided to change the rules. They declared that they could use the “Reconciliation Rule (this is a different “reconciliation” than the House bill). This rule was only supposed to be used for budget item approvals so that such items could be passed with only 51 votes in the Senate, not the usual 60. Reconciliation was never intended to be used for legislation of the magnitude of Obamacare. But that didn’t stop them.

So both of the “Acts” were able to pass both houses of Congress and sent to President Obama for his signature without a single Republican vote in favor of the legislation.

The GOP leadership, smarting under the accusation they’ve failed to challenge Obamacare, decided to pay back the administration in its own coin by crafting a bill using the same reconciliation process to amend parts of Obamacare.  But this clever half-measure is being resisted by Cruz, Rubio and Lee who argue the Republicans were elected to repeal Obamacare and nothing less, even at the cost of risking a presidential veto.

Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Mike Lee (R-Utah) are vowing to oppose any fast-track bill repealing only parts of ObamaCare, narrowing the path for the legislation to pass the Senate.

The House is set to vote on Friday on a bill under a fast-track process known as reconciliation that would repeal several parts of ObamaCare. The reconciliation process allows a measure to pass the Senate with 51 votes, instead of the usual 60, and get through to President Obama’s desk, where it would face a veto.

But the three senators — two of whom, Cruz and Rubio, are running for president — are vowing to oppose the House measure because it doesn’t go far enough.

“On Friday the House of Representatives is set to vote on a reconciliation bill that repeals only parts of Obamacare,” the senators said in a joint statement. “This simply isn’t good enough. Each of us campaigned on a promise to fully repeal Obamacare and a reconciliation bill is the best way to send such legislation to President Obama’s desk.

“If this bill cannot be amended so that it fully repeals Obamacare pursuant to Senate rules, we cannot support this bill,” the senators continue. “With millions of Americans now getting health premium increase notices in the mail, we owe our constituents nothing less.”

Though many GOP lawmakers cringed at the prospect of a face off with the president, no doubt anticipating the beating they would take in the media, one person who welcomed face-offs was Obama himself.  Ted Cruz noted that Obama’s favorite negotiating tactic was to shut down the government if the GOP leadership didn’t give him what he wanted.   Justin Johnson in Real Clear Politics says he’s done exactly that again by vetoing the defense funding bill until Congress gives him all the money he wants for non-defense spending.

Obama veto of defensing funding is the second act of the drama.

For 53 consecutive years, Congress has passed a National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) which establishes policies and budgets for the Defense Department. In that 53-year period, the NDAA has been vetoed only four times.

The first came in 1978, when President Jimmy Carter vetoed H.R. 10929, the NDAA for fiscal year 1979. Though the bill was written by Democratic majorities in the House and Senate, Carter vetoed it because it included funding for a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier. Two months after the veto, Congress passed a new version of the NDAA without the nuclear aircraft carrier. President Carter signed it into law.

In 1988 President Ronald Reagan vetoed H.R. 4264, the FY 1989 NDAA, primarily because of a dispute over his missile defense program. The Democratic Congress proposed cutting $3.7 billion from R&D on the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI). Reagan also expressed concern about cuts to ballistic missile submarines and ICBM modernization programs. Once again, Congress removed the offending provisions, and the president signed the new version into law.

President Bill Clinton exercised his veto power on the FY 1996 NDAA, arguing that it “would unacceptably restrict my ability to carry out this country’s national security objectives and substantially interfere with the implementation of key national defense programs.” President Clinton and the Republican Congress clashed over a variety of issues, such as a missile defense program that Clinton believed would have conflicted with the ABM Treaty, restrictions on the president’s ability to conduct contingency operations, and the elimination of funding for the Defense Enterprise Fund. Yet again, Congress removed the objectionable provisions, and the NDAA was signed into law.

In 2007, President Bush vetoed the 2008 NDAA. The conflict centered on the Democratic Congress’ desire to freeze Iraqi assets in U.S. banks. Unlike the previous policy beefs, this was largely a technical issue with unexpectedly large diplomatic implications that popped up late in the process. In the end, Congress and the president worked out their differences, and a modified NDAA was signed into law.

Which brings us to the pending veto drama. Mr. Obama has threatened to veto H.R. 1735, the FY 2016 NDAA. But unlike any of the four previous disputes, the President’s primary objection lies not with a policy contained in the bill, but with something completely beyond the scope of the bill.

The administration vows to veto the defense bill unless Congress agrees to increase non-defense spending. The White House issued a statement saying that Mr. Obama “will not fix defense without fixing non-defense spending.” Of course, non-defense spending is not in the NDAA’s bailiwick. Given the rising threats around the world and the fact that defense spending has been cut 15% in the last four years, “fixing” defense should be considered on its own merits.

The third part has to do with conservative revolt against the GOP leadership team of John Boehner.  The media has depicted his fall in terms of antipathy to the former  speaker.  The issues are broader than that:  the core rebel demand is over whether the leadership will be accountable to the Party rather than to the White House.   The rebels want the leadership to do what the majority of members want.   The GOP leadership by contrast, is willing to make some concessions but in return wants the rank and file to promise never to challenge the party bigs again.  The Atlantic reports:

The swift conservative backlash to Paul Ryan’s highly-conditional bid for House speaker is best understood this way: In order to accept the job, Ryan needed to win a compromise from the no-compromise caucus. “He wants near-unanimous support from the party … and he wants changes to the rules that would make it harder, if not impossible, for rank-and-file lawmakers to depose him on the House floor through a “motion to vacate the chair” if they don’t get what they want. …

“No matter who is speaker, they cannot be successful with this weapon pointed at them all the time,” said Ryan spokesman Brendan Buck when describing Ryan’s request to Republicans in a private meeting on Tuesday night.

The Freedom Caucus may have given Ryan its support for the speakership, but it has not endorsed this procedural change.

It had not conceded as of this writing. The House Freedom Caucus Twitter account said “we have not agreed to eliminate or change the motion to vacate the chair. This motion is a protection for the people, and we must defend it.” Politico noted that for the Freedom Caucus to do this would be to throw away their ace.

One of Rep. Paul Ryan’s conditions for running for House speaker was that he wanted to reform the “motion to vacate,” a rarely-invoked legislative tool that’s essentially a way to boot the speaker from his job.

His pitch didn’t go over well with the House Freedom Caucus, the group of 40 conservatives that helped drive John Boehner to the Capitol exits, including with threats of using it. They were reluctant, to put it mildly, to relinquish one of their most potent weapons without proof that Ryan would agree to other demands they had of the next speaker.

These three interlocking storylines: the open challenge by Cruz, Rubio and Lee to half-measures against Obamacare; the presidential veto of the defense funding bill and the struggle over the Speakership of the House — indeed of the relationship between the Speaker and the members collectively describe a real crisis in Washington.  The system is freezing up and nobody knows how the gridlocking systems will unjam themselves. It’s a cliffhanger with no ending yet.

Yet the drama in Congress is itself part of a larger narrative: the unprecedented collapse of American foreign policy; the failure of traditional Republican presidential candidates to make a showing; the soap opera adventures of Hillary Clinton to name a few.  The testimony of Hillary Clinton before the Benghazi congressional committee provided into a peek into a dysfunctional system.  If the executive branch runs itself as Hillary recounted, then it’s a hell of a way to run a railroad.

Much as Washington may deny it, something fundamental has changed.  Something is broken. It is no longer possible to conduct business as usual. Political actors, sensing this, are choosing this moment to challenge. Most of them, like Cruz, Rubio and Lee — or the Freedom Caucus — are acutely aware that they are now in terra incognita.  The risks are high, but none is higher than remaining where they are.

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