Although it was technically not a filibuster, last week’s really long speech by Texas Senator Ted Cruz was similar to a filibuster in many ways. A “real” filibuster, like the one staged by Kentucky Senator Rand Paul over the administration’s drone policy, prevents the Senate from holding a vote. Senator Paul held up the DCI nomination of John Brennan, pushing the vote off to the next day. Senator Cruz, however, spoke with a predetermined time limit; no Senate business was postponed because of his speech. But what it accomplished was exactly what a genuine filibuster would have accomplished.
While he delayed the Brennan nomination with his 13-hour filibuster, Senator Paul didn’t actually change anything. Brennan would have been approved before, and he was approved after. What he did accomplish was highlighting an extremely unpopular policy point of the administration and bringing it into the national conversation.
In many ways, Senator Cruz accomplished exactly the same. As I had previously written (“Can Republicans Actually Defund Obamacare?” August 28, 2013), the primary focus of the entire “defund” effort was more about reigniting the debate about Obamacare than it was about actually getting the program defunded. By all accounts, he was wildly successful.
House leadership had originally intended to pass a “clean” continuing resolution — a funding bill without any amendments — which would keep the government open. The plan was to present a version of a “defund or delay” amendment to the upcoming debt ceiling debate. By launching such a high-profile assault on Obamacare now, Cruz and his closest ally, Utah Senator Mike Lee, forced that debate to take place now. Some in the party, such as Arizona Senator John McCain and Long Island Congressman Peter King, are very unhappy about this.
McCain took to the Senate floor and declared the Cruz/Lee cause to be one that ran contrary to the will of the American people. He said that “…the 2012 election, Obamacare, as it’s called…was a major issue in the campaign. I campaigned all over America for two months everywhere I could, and in every single campaign rally I said, ‘And we have to repeal and replace Obamacare.’ Well, the people spoke. They spoke, much to my dismay, but they spoke, and they re-elected the president of the United States…elections have consequences, and those elections were clear in … that a majority of the American people supported the president of the United States and renewed his stewardship of this country.”
King, who is finding he is becoming less and less relevant since the “Wacko Bird Caucus” came to Congress, declared emphatically on Fox News Sunday that he was not going to vote against Obamacare again. “From the start I thought it was wrong to pursue this policy of threatening to shut the government down over defunding Obamacare,” King said. “I went along with the votes up until now because I know that John Boehner does not want to shut the government down, and I was assured this was a process to keep the government open…I think Harry Reid should accept the proposal that was made. If he doesn’t, I don’t want the government to shut down and I don’t see how I can vote again to any more amending to Obamacare.” King’s threat to thwart any further amending of Obamacare via the funding resolution fell flat, however. Although he had boasted of controlling 20-25 votes of GOP moderates who would vote against anything but a simple funding bill, in the end he could only hold on to himself and Rep Charlie Dent.
Regardless of their opposition, the “Defund It Now” petition has close to two million signatures as of this writing, and the volume of grassroots support definitely forced House Speaker John Boehner’s hand.
And it’s a good thing that it did.
Whether it is true or not, the GOP Congress has earned itself a reputation of thinking that they are always just one more surrender away from a victory. Giving up trying to get President Obama to negotiate over delaying or defunding the Affordable Care Act (which more Americans are finding to be less affordable) now because a government shutdown would be blamed on Republicans is a fair argument to make. But it cannot be made in the context of rather wanting to have the debate when the debt ceiling is reached. Obama knows that the Congressional GOP is terrible at these sorts of standoffs. As Cruz and Lee have wisely realized, if the GOP will back off at any sign of political pressure, they need to fight the fight when the GOP has less to lose, not when the President has more to lose. That is why this showdown is taking place now, because the eventuality of a government shutdown is something Republican leadership has been convinced they can live with. All that means is living with the political repercussions. The Debt Ceiling, however, has more than just political implications. It also will finally show the White House that this new breed of Republicans won’t just back down every time the going gets rough.