This is how the Senate works.

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Congressional Dealmaking Isn't Extortion

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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Are Senator Elizabeth Warren and other Democrats who opposed the government funding bill the practical equivalents of Senator Ted Cruz and the radical Republicans who shut down the government last year?

They are not.

Matt Yglesias makes the case that, in fact, Republicans were responsible for trouble in both 2013 and 2014. In both cases, Republicans pressed to add a provision that Democrats opposed -- most recently one that rolled back a portion of the Dodd-Frank financial regulation law in the funding bill that passed the House yesterday and is moving to the Senate .

There’s something to this argument, but it really understates what was special about Tail Gunner Ted's shutdown in 2013.

Of course, part of normal bargaining involves a certain amount of brinkmanship and part of deliberate shutdown politics can involve claims that the other side is “really” responsible for the breakdown. 

The process goes off the rails when it includes excessive demands, backed up by ultimatums, that are far outside what appears to be the normal range of bargaining. Demanding a repeal of Obamacare (or “defunding”) despite a solid Democratic majority in the Senate and a Democrat in the White House is of a different order than a fight about a relatively small provision of Dodd-Frank, or the other policy riders added to the current funding bill.

In any case, it was clear from the beginning of last year that the radicals were more interested in the principle of blackmail than they were in the fate of any particular hostage. Indeed, most of the drama of the government shutdown involved Republicans flailing around looking for a good demand they could make for the shutdown they had already engineered.

That was true this time, too -- but it only involved a small group of Republicans. The bulk of mainstream conservative Republicans made policy demands (and will win some policy victories if the Senate, as expected, passes the bill this weekend). But that was in the context of normal bargaining, in which Democrats also won concessions. Sure, there’s always the implicit threat that a failure to reach a deal will cause a shutdown. But that's very different from the attitude of the Cruz group in 2013 (or New Gingrich’s similar plan in 1995) to use a shutdown as a strategy for getting the other side to agree to something outside of normal negotiating.

What Warren and the other liberal dissenters have done this week is to saying that the deal isn’t quite good enough for them. They’re not starting from the assumption that they should hold their breath until they get their way … and then looking around for something to demand. This wasn't extortion for the sake of extortion. Just regular sausage-making. 

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To contact the author on this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net