"This isn't some damn game!” Republican House Speaker John Boehner boomed from Capitol Hill earlier this month, three days after the federal government shut down. However you wish to characterize the past few weeks, one thing is for certain: The GOP lost this one.
“We fought the good fight, we just didn’t win,” a quieter, more conciliatory Boehner conceded on Wednesday in an interview with Cincinnati’s WLW radio station.
And now, this particular fight appears to be at its end. Senate leaders announced on Wednesday that they had struck a deal to reopen the government until Jan. 15 and raise the debt ceiling until Feb. 7, which would free up more time for budget negotiations. Republicans got very, very little in return.
On Wednesday afternoon, Boehner called all House GOP lawmakers to a private meeting in the basement of the Capitol Building, the same room where they have met almost daily to discuss, debate and even sing together during the shutdown, as they pieced together a strategy against Democrats, who from the beginning refused to negotiate with them.
Inside the meeting, Boehner urged fellow Republicans to join him in supporting the Senate deal and told them that they would “live to fight another day.” Before he spoke, his colleagues gave him a standing ovation.
As House Republicans filed out after the brief meeting, the lawmakers exuded mixed emotions: relief that they could finally move on from this mess; sadness at the result; frustration at those who came up with the strategy in the first place; pride that they stuck to their guns; and determination that they wouldn’t make the same mistakes again. Some conceded that the strategy refusing to fund the government unless Obamacare is defunded or delayed had failed.
“That strategy did not work,” Florida Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart said. “This battle continues and will continue forever, just like the battle to control spending will continue. ... We have to pick areas where we are going to win, and that battle is never going to be easy. To me this was a tactical issue.”
“I don’t think the last six months have been all that constructive,” said Illinois Rep. Aaron Schock. “If the last two weeks have resulted in a different course of action moving forward, then I would say it will have been worth it, but if we go back to passing legislation that dies in the Senate ad nauseum, then I’m not sure that was a learning experience.”
But Rep. Justin Amash, a libertarian-leaning Republican from Michigan, pointed to one part of the exercise he saw as a victory: that it made President Barack Obama appear unreasonable.
“It proved to everyone that the president is completely unwilling to negotiate,” Amash said. “I think it really exposed the president as a man unwilling to compromise under any circumstances.”
Some of the chamber’s most conservative members, who had urged their leaders to fight to the end, expressed frustration that their message failed to resonate with voters.
“We tried from the very beginning to make this about bringing our families at least up to the same levels as corporations are being treated. We lost,” South Carolina Rep. Mick Mulvaney said during a luncheon on Wednesday sponsored by the conservative Heritage Foundation. “We at least tried to make sure the political class didn’t benefit at the expense of American families. We lost that one as well.”
The 16-day shutdown and the impasse over the federal debt limit cost the economy $24 billion, according to an S&P estimate, and several polls show support for Republicans tanking in the month of October. Assuming the House and Senate pass the bipartisan deal negotiated by Senate leaders, Republicans will have little to show for their labor except for a short-term continuation of sequestration spending levels, income verification for the health exchanges established under Obamacare and a promise for a conference committee on the budget.
“It was worth it,” said Idaho Republican Rep. Raul Labrador. “Anytime you stand up for the American people, it’s worth it.”
One attitude not prevalent on Wednesday — at least not publicly — was anger aimed at Boehner, who allowed the conservatives to test their strategy against his original wishes. (Boehner had initially preferred to challenge Obamacare through the debt ceiling debate, but he gave in to demands within the party to use the government shutdown as a bargaining tool.)
Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan, who once served as chairman of the Republican Study Committee, a group of the House’s most conservative members, said “there is absolutely no talk” of a coup against Boehner.
To some conservative lawmakers, Boehner did the best he could with the cards he was dealt.
“I’ve actually been really proud of Speaker Boehner the past few weeks, I don’t think he should be ashamed of anything he has done,” Labrador said. “I’m more upset with my Republican conference to be honest with you. It’s the Republicans here who always want to fight, but they want to fight the next fight that have given Speaker Boehner the inability to be unsuccessful in this fight. So if anybody should be kicked out, it’s probably those Republicans and not Speaker Boehner.”
Like Republicans, it appears Boehner will also live to fight another day.