House Republicans Ignore Tea Party Again

On the debt ceiling, House Republicans end up where they were headed from the start.
That is his home. Photographer: Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call

House Republicans have given up on extortion, or even semi-normal bargaining, and are now planning to put a clean debt limit extension on the House floor. Democrats will be expected to provide the bulk of the votes to pass it, but apparently there will be no debt limit crisis this time.

Noam Scheiber argues that what's different now is that the Tea Party faction in the House has to some extent come to its senses after the government shutdown.

I don't think that's right. The truth is that the Tea Party votes in the House have never been relevant to any must-pass legislation. After all, the real radical position is to oppose raising the debt limit regardless of what's attached, and in the long run the radicals were never going to vote for whatever final deal emerged, even if it gave them some of what they wanted. See, for example, the Budget Control Act in 2011, which failed to win the votes of 66 Tea Party-leaning House Republicans.

The lesson of the shutdown for both moderates and mainstream conservatives in the House (and something they should have realized before the shutdown) was that many of them eventually were going to have to split from the radicals because, at the end of the day, something would have to pass, and they (along with Senate Democrats and President Barack Obama) would have to go along with it. So a strategy based on preventing such a split, and the resulting vulnerability to charges of RINO and "sellout," was doomed to fail. Winning support from the radicals on an initial vote wouldn't prevent them from splitting on a later vote.

Votes on the debt limit are even worse for mainstream conservatives because some radicals won't go along with any vote to raise the debt limit, no matter what it's paired with. So seeking a House majority without any Democratic votes was a pointless, doomed, strategy; it couldn't even get off the ground.

It's probably worth mentioning, too, that Obama's "no hostages" negotiating stance made it much less likely that mainstream conservatives could win substantive gains in a protracted fight. Granted, they did have the option of testing Obama's resolve, and there's no way to know what would have happened at that point. But the politics guaranteed that the last act would entail mainstream conservatives breaking with the radicals on a vote, even if they got something substantive along the way.

So it's only sensible for Republicans to skip the first round of implacable demands and jump straight to capitulation on the debt limit; they were always going to wind up there anyway.

Note that this logic only holds for bills that pass -- especially for those (the debt limit, spending bills) that must pass. That puts mainstream conservatives in the driver's seat, at least for any legislation that Democrats believe is necessary. Whether the issue is immigration, minimum wage, unemployment benefits or ENDA protections against discrimination based on sexual orientation, if mainstream House conservatives want it to pass, it will pass. If not, not. Tea Party radicals just don't have much influence in the results.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

    (Jonathan Bernstein covers U.S. politics for Bloomberg View. He is co-editor of "The Making of the Presidential Candidates 2012." Follow him on Twitter at @JBPlainblog.)

    To contact the author on this story:
    Jonathan Bernstein at

    To contact the editor on this story:
    Frank Wilkinson at

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.