The rhetorical preliminaries will last at least another 33 days. Once Congress returns to work in September, this year’s budget battle royal will be joined for real, then last for months. Or so the thinking goes.
However, new signs from key players in the GOP spectrum point to something quite different. The cliff-walking melodrama may itself get kicked down the road.
No sooner had the fractured Republicans physically scattered over the weekend than their leadership made this much clearer than ever: They are not getting behind the idea of holding the entire government hostage as a way to starve Obamacare to death.
The two House members with the most power to drive such a showdown, Majority Leader Eric Cantor and Budget Chairman Paul D. Ryan, both spurned the idea in TV interviews that aired Sunday.
The senator with the most interest at the moment in bucking up his base on the far right, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, didn’t offer a lick of support for the tactic when the national political press was hanging on his every word at Kentucky’s fabled Fancy Farm political picnic.
And one of the most influential conservative officials from outside the Beltway, Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin, led a chorus of GOP chief executives in warning their congressional colleagues away from any shutdown strategy, which they said risked rattling their fragile state economies.
All this resistance will infuriate the country’s most influential and well-funded conservative groups, including the Tea Party Patriots, the Club for Growth, FreedomWorks and Heritage Action for America.
They’ve coordinated a campaign to re-create the fervor that almost killed the health care rewrite in its legislative cradle four Augusts ago. They're trying to focus a new wave of anger on demands that Congress “defund Obamacare” before permitting the rest of the government to open in the new fiscal year on Oct. 1.
Carrying this cause in Congress are Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Mike Lee of Utah, and there’s no reason to expect they’ll back away before they’ve forced their fight to a roll call finish in September. The freshmen share a similar style: raise the wagers of political capital, and with it the level of self-righteousness whenever their GOP elders have warned they’ve gone too far forward on the wrong foot.
What those leaders have concluded is supported by the limited measurable evidence: Give-me-what-I-want-before-I-shoot-again strategies don’t work for congressional Republicans. That's especially true when applied to negotiations over the annual appropriations for federal agencies.
The last time the government shut down because of an impasse over spending — twice, at the end of 1995 and early in 1996 — the public by lopsided margins blamed majority Republicans for being petulant and dogmatic, while giving President Bill Clinton credit for his resolve in defending his priorities. (The House majority was trimmed by nine seats in the next election, while Clinton won his second term.)
McConnell knows this from personal experience; he’s one of the 15 current GOP senators who were in Congress at the time. That’s one-third of his caucus, a group big enough to tacitly join with the Democrats to make certain the same Republican strategic risks aren’t taken again.
The situation is different in the House, where only 35 Republicans, or 15 percent of the conference, took part in the last shutdown and its aftermath.
In theory, that group could readily be outgunned by the confrontation-minded newcomers, who view Cruz and Lee among the prophets of the GOP’s conservative future. And they couldn't care less about their lack of experience in such budget brinkmanship. (During the last shutdown, Cruz had just turned 25 and was clerking for a federal appeals judge in Virginia; Lee was a year younger and still in law school.)
The challenge for House leadership now is to put to a different use one of the main talking points the rank-and-file Republicans were urged to practice during this recess.
Go out and spend the month chastising Washington, they were told. And if anyone reminds you of the folly of lambasting the establishment to which you belong, note how Republicans are in charge of only one-half of one-third of the federal government.
That’s a favorite chestnut of Speaker John A. Boehner, who generally uses it to explain the limits of his own power. And that’s where it might come in handy now, for reminding conservative groups and their backbencher allies that their wish couldn’t even be granted by a genuinely powerful speaker in the incumbent’s circumstances.
Instead, look for Boehner and McConnell to settle for a stopgap bill that holds spending at current levels — but doesn’t drop them another notch, as the sequester law contemplates — and delays the big decisions until December, when they hope GOP leverage will be enhanced by the next debt ceiling deadline.
These signs of GOP retreat came even before President Barack Obama could take his first opportunity to ridicule the threat since the recess began. He's now essentially alone on the national stage and immune to organized rebuttal. He’s off to a high school in Phoenix on Tuesday in another attempt to sell his economic vision in advance of the spending and debt limit deliberations.
If the president doesn’t chide the GOP’s contemplation of a hostage-taking in that stump-style speech, he’s got an even riper opportunity later in the day, when he tapes "The Tonight Show" with Jay Leno.
We already know who'll be on the end of that punchline.