By Bill Schneider
To end the government shutdown, all Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) needs to do is let the House of Representatives vote on a budget. It would pass within 30 minutes. Virtually all 200 House Democrats would vote to keep the government open, as would as many as 50 Republicans. An easy majority.
But no. Boehner and other Republican leaders refuse to do that because they are in thrall to Tea Party conservatives. Hard-line conservatives number about 50 out of 232 House Republicans. But those conservatives are threatening to lead an insurrection against party leaders if they dare to allow a vote. Other Republican members are terrified that they will face a tough primary challenge from the right if they don't go along with the Tea Party.
So what have we got? Minority government.
It's outrageous when you think about it. Hard-line conservatives are blocking majority rule so they can get their way. They insist they are taking a stand on principle. Why? "Because we're right, simply because we're right," one of them told the New York Times.
What principle? The principle that the Affordable Care Act is an unconstitutional expansion of government power and that President Barack Obama is not a legitimate president.
But didn't the Supreme Court rule back in June that Obamacare is constitutional? It did. A Tea Party activist protested at the time, "Just because the Supreme Court says something is constitutional doesn't mean it is."
And didn't the voters re-elect Obama last year? They did. But hard-line conservatives insist that's only because Republicans put up a candidate who wasn't a true conservative.
Conservatives have a talent for denying facts. "The American people overwhelmingly reject Obamacare," Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas) said on Meet the Press, "They understand it's not working."
Do they? Well, the public has always been skeptical of the Affordable Care Act. Americans polled last week by Quinnipiac University were split over the new healthcare law — 45 percent support it and 47 percent oppose it.
But do they favor Congress cutting off funding for the law? No, by 58 percent to 34 percent. Do they favor shutting down major activities of the federal government as a way to stop the healthcare law? No, 72 percent to 22 percent. As for the law "not working," people just started signing up on Monday. More than a million Americans visited the Obamacare website, HealthCare.gov, before 7:00 a.m. Monday morning. Sure, there were glitches. The site was overloaded.
There is no way Republicans can win this fight. We're already seeing polls that show Democrats building a lead over Republicans when voters are asked how they will vote for Congress. The Quinnipiac poll shows a 9-point Democratic lead — the biggest margin so far.
That has a lot of congressional Republicans freaking out. They're rushing to try to restore spending on popular programs like veterans' benefits and national parks. But Obama and congressional Democrats are holding fast. They know they've got the leverage.
Don't Republicans remember what happened the last time they shut down the government in 1996? President Bill Clinton coasted to re-election.
Conservatives argue that what hurt Republicans in 1996 wasn't the shutdown. It was the "surrender." They believe they lost because they gave in too quickly instead of keeping the government closed.
What exactly do Republicans think they can accomplish with this maneuver? Some are using terms like "the Alamo" and "Custer's Last Stand" — glorious defeats, fighting for a noble cause. Thank goodness nobody has mentioned the Confederacy as the great Lost Cause.
Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) reminded her Senate colleagues that the issue here is the federal budget. It's a debate over money, she said, "not about political or ideological viewpoints."
Actually, that's exactly what Republicans insist it is about. "This is a matter of core principle," one Republican congressman said.
A budget is supposed to be a fight over interests. Interests can be negotiated and compromised.
But you can't make deals if this is a fight over values, which is what conservatives claim it is. Values are about right and wrong. There's no room for compromise.
Conservatives are demanding that Obama agree to put off the individual mandate to purchase health insurance for one year. Why is that such a big deal? The answer is: Because it would kill the healthcare program. If we delay the mandate, insurance companies will still have to cover people with preexisting conditions. Older and sicker people, desperate for insurance, would sign up. As a result, insurance premiums would skyrocket. The country would face a wave of protests.
Some conservatives want to delay the whole Obamacare program for a year. They have an ulterior motive. They expect Republicans to win control of the Senate in the midterm elections next year and then take the White House in 2016. That would put them in a position to kill off Obamacare forever — as Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney promised to do if he had won the election. It will be much harder to kill Obamacare if it is already in place.
Meanwhile, mainstream Republicans are getting increasingly concerned about facing a backlash at the polls next year. They have good reason to worry. Far from rallying to the anti-Obamacare cause, voters are expressing anger and disgust with Congress.
Contempt of Congress happens to be a crime. If that's the case, millions of Americans may be facing arrest any minute now. Because contempt of Congress is exactly what they are expressing.
(Bill Schneider is professor of public and international affairs at George Mason University and a resident scholar at Third Way. Opinions are his own.)