Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell: “Look, shutting down the government, in my view, is not conservative policy. I don't think a two-week paid vacation for federal employees is conservative policy. A number of us were saying back in July that this strategy could not and would not work, and of course it didn't. So there will not be another government shutdown. You can count on that.”
Texas firebrand Ted Cruz, when asked if he would advocate another government shutdown: “I would do anything and I will continue to do anything I can to stop the train wreck that is Obamacare. What I intend to do is continue standing with the American people to work to stop Obamacare, because it isn't working, it's costing people's jobs, and it's taking away their healthcare."
Who speaks for the GOP? Certainly, establishment types such as McConnell oppose further quixotic attempts to use the threat of a government shutdown to defund the Affordable Care Act. But can they -- can anyone -- control Ted Cruz?
McConnell sounded confident when speaking with Face the Nation’s Bob Schieffer this past Sunday. That confidence may stem from assurances -- implicit or explicit -- from John Boehner that he would use his power as speaker of the House to head off a right-wing shutdown threat. Such an action from Boehner would require a degree of courage the speaker has not shown in the past.
The shutdown threat has been pushed into next year. For now, the interesting political battle is the internecine fighting within the Republican Party, with tea party supporters attacking any Republican with the whiff of compromise about him or her and the establishment fighting back.
McConnell has his own worries in his 2014 reelection bid. Alison Lundergan Grimes, a formidable and well-financed Democrat, poses a serious threat. But first the incumbent has to make it to the general election; he faces a primary challenge from Matt Bevin, who denies he’s a member of the tea party while receiving praise and endorsements from tea party leaders in Kentucky.
Several reliably conservative Republican senators, besides McConnell, fear an extremist challenger in next year’s primaries. The Senate Conservatives Fund, which touts its mission to elect “true conservatives to the United States Senate,” has endorsed Bevin, and in Mississippi the SCF is backing challenger Chris McDaniel against incumbent Thad Cochran, who has yet to announce whether he will seek another term in the Senate. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, among others, may also face a challenge from the right.
Establishment Republicans can read the polls, which show the public blames the GOP for the shutdown, and they understand the damage the extremists have done to the party’s brand. Karl Rove is not shy about who to blame: “Barack Obama set the trap. Some congressional Republican walked into it.” Former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott was blunt when asked what Boehner and McConnell can do to curb the influence of Cruz and his allies. “You roll them,” Lott said, “I do think we need stronger leadership, and there’s got to be some pushback on these guys who think they came [to Washington] with all the solutions.”
Democrats can only smile. The prospect that far-right challengers will replace more traditional conservatives in general elections improves the chances of Democrats retaining their Senate majority, and it gives the party hope it might overtake the GOP in the House, despite the advantage Republicans have due to gerrymandering.
Nothing like bitter infighting among your opponents to make the impossible possible.