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.
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 health care 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.
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.