House Republicans had a joke in the mid-1990s that the Democrats were their opponents, but the Senate was the enemy. Today’s House Republicans are beginning to develop the same sentiment — but this time, it’s not a joke.
When Representative Paul Ryan last week used the pages of the Wall Street Journal to suggest a way out of the shutdown/debt-ceiling morass, conservatives complained that Ryan’s column did not even mention Obamacare. Yet now Ryan himself, less than a week after some conservatives accused him of sandbagging their efforts, is complaining that Senate Republicans are sandbagging his own compromise proposal just as it seemed to be gaining traction.
Conservatives were right about Ryan, and Ryan is right about the Senate. The Senate’s apostasy, though, appears substantially worse.
At least Ryan’s proposal aimed to accomplish conservative goals: long-term savings, entitlement reform, new limits on the coddling of federal employees, and a simplified tax code with lower corporate rates. Its deliberate refusal to include even the slightest nick in Obamacare’s edifice provided evidence that Ryan is far from averse to disappointing conservatives — but at least he could claim to be keeping his eye on the long-term goal of greater fiscal responsibility.
Nothing like that can be said about the Senate plan whose details began to emerge on Saturday. It would essentially forfeit all leverage associated with both the debt ceiling and the annual appropriations process by providing a largely “clean” spending resolution through March while raising the debt ceiling enough to last through January. The only “concession” it would extract from the Left would be a two-year delay — not even a repeal but merely a delay — in the medical-device tax. The full repeal of this tax already enjoys majority support in both houses of Congress, and Barack Obama has indicated it is not central to his health-insurance Leviathan.
If the Collins-Manchin plan isn’t the equivalent of Neville Chamberlain’s “peace in our time,” that’s only because the moral stakes aren’t as high. Left unaddressed in the plan as it’s been reported are the possibilities of delaying all or a significant part of Obamacare by at least a year; attacking the Independent Payment Advisory Board, which is the largest of the highly vulnerable parts of Obama’s health monstrosity; undertaking reforms in entitlements or taxes; and taking steps toward any other significant fiscal or policy achievement.
Instead, the Senate framework would merely offer an escape from current political pressure, while ensuring renewed battles early next year. And when those battles came along, conservatives would begin in a position of weakness brought on by their failure to secure anything of note this fall.
The plan would also hurt Republicans’ political prospects in the Senate. With the odds of a GOP Senate majority looking good, at least on paper, the political imperative now is to force vulnerable Democratic senators into as many votes as possible defending all or part of the extremely unpopular Obamacare law. The Collins-Manchin plan, instead, would let Democrats such as Kay Hagan, Mark Pryor, Mary Landrieu, and Mark Begich off the hook.
But this is par for the course for Senate Republicans, whose fumbling legislative efforts, combined with the pathetic performance of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, have resulted in lamentable outcomes in the past four biennial election cycles. Senate Republicans, with John McCain and Lindsey Graham consistently helping to drag them down, frequently combine the tactical brilliance of General George McClellan in the Peninsula Campaign with the strategic acumen of French generals relying on the Maginot Line for safety.
This is not to recommend against considered caution or in favor of wild overreaching. Conservatives at times have been known to attack politics with the crazed bravado of Custer at Little Big Horn, ignoring wise counsel along the way. But, really, there must be a middle ground between Maginot and Little Big Horn — and Ryan, despite the flaws of his approach, at least tried to provide it. Senate Republicans, on the other hand, behave as if they expect to be greeted by encomiums like those from the Southern editor who wrote admiringly that the reputation of Confederate general Joseph E. Johnston had “grown with every backward step.”
It is a mystery how conservatives can successfully emerge from the cul de sac into which Senate Republicans have now placed them. But emerge they must, because the alternative in this autumn’s battles is abject defeat.
— Quin Hillyer is a contributing editor for National Review and a senior fellow for the Center for Individual Freedom.