WASHINGTON – If anything good comes out of the 16-day government shutdown, it might be in strengthening the hand of the so-called moderates in Congress.
That, however, could easily be taken as code for Democrats, since they were all but handed the “moderate” franchise in this fight. Republicans have been running away from that label for years, for fear of inviting Tea Party challenges.
So the crisis saw Democrats wrapping themselves in the cloak of moderation, ceding to Republicans whatever conservative ground the GOP thought it might gain by following Texas Sen. Ted Cruz to his Alamo moment in the war against Obamacare.
Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, a Democrat who is often criticized for playing it too safe, took the moderate mantle more firmly than most. She threw in with a group of 12 Senate centrists pushing their leaders to make a deal.
The group’s Republicans, led by Maine Sen. Susan Collins, leaned on Republican Leader Mitch McConnell. The Democrats, including Klobuchar, pressed Democratic Leader Harry Reid.
The driving force was the promise of sober, thoughtful negotiations on entitlements, tax reform, budget cuts and health care — but outside the ambit of shutdown politics.
“That has been what’s lacking,” Klobuchar said, “as we lurch from financial crisis to financial crisis.”
In the end, Reid and McConnell did a deal on their own, ending the shutdown and averting a debt-limit crisis. The agreement could now set the stage for more comprehensive budget talks touching on long-term structural problems such as the solvency of Medicare and Social Security — topics that divide Democrats more than Republicans.
But the accord involved nothing but token concessions on Obamacare. Democrats simply wouldn’t go there. Republicans complained of Democratic intransigence, as if the White House were going to calmly negotiate away its signature domestic policy success — under penalty of default.
That didn’t happen, and there are few in Washington who deny that the Republican brand took a hit — not just from Democrats and independents, but from disappointed Tea Partiers who called it abject surrender.
Lest anyone think the Tea Party is done, note that the majority of the House GOP caucus — including lame-duck Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota — voted against the deal that reopened the government.
A crisis might have been averted, but the debate over the new health care law is far from over. If there’s a sliver of hope that we won’t be in the same predicament come January, it’s that the brinkmanship of the past two weeks failed.
For some Tea Partiers, the only failure was in not continuing to fight, no matter the cost. But that wasn’t the takeaway for Klobuchar or fellow Minnesota Democratic Sen. Al Franken. “I hope those members of Congress who caused this shutdown learn that the American people don’t want us to govern by lurching from crisis to crisis,” Franken said.
Klobuchar celebrated the bipartisanship of the group of 12, arguing on the Senate floor that the only way to make progress in the next round of talks will be to split their differences: “Courage is going to be whether or not you’re willing to stand next to someone you don’t always agree with for the betterment of the country.”
Previous attempts have yielded only cease-fires, not lasting deals. But Klobuchar says this time might be different. “The public,” she said, “is much more focused and angry.”