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Did John Boehner allow the United States government to shut down at midnight because he wanted to save whatever political capital he has left for the fight over the debt ceiling? Or has the Republican Speaker in the House of Representatives simply lost control over events?
The answer could determine whether the United States defaults on its debt, plunging us all into a global economic crisis.
The House passed, and the Senate rejected, so many continuing resolutions Monday night that the whole thing began to feel like a tennis match. But when you strip away all of the to-ing and fro-ing that finally led the federal government to suspend all non-essential operations, it comes down to this:
Tea Party Republicans–populist, militant and very conservative in the House of Representatives, forced their own party leadership to repeatedly present the Democrats with an ultimatum.
That ultimatum stated that the Democrats must scrap, or at least defer, the Oct. 1 implementation of the new national health-care program known as Obamacare, President Barack Obama's signature achievement. (Even a deferral would effectively scuttle the whole program.) If the Democrats failed to comply, Republicans warned, the House would shut down the government Oct. 1 and refuse to raise the debt ceiling later in the month.
But ultimatums almost always fail when the weaker side is threatening the stronger side. The Democrats, after all, control both the Senate and the administration.
"One faction of one party in one house of Congress in one branch of government doesn't get to shut down the entire government just to re-fight the results of an election," President Obama declared Monday. To prove the point, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid rejected an offer from the House Republicans to enter into negotiations late Monday evening. A few minutes later, the federal government started to go dark.
The shutdown will drag down the American economy, which could hurt growth prospects in Canada. Worse – so much worse – if this impasse makes it impossible to raise the debt ceiling by Oct. 17, give or take, then the United States will default on its debt, and the American, the Canadian, and most other economies will be thrown into disarray.
Most negotiations end with each side getting some of what it needs but not everything that it wants. That can't happen in this case. Because the Republicans delivered their demands in the form of an ultimatum that the Democrats cannot possibly accept, and because the Republicans are delivering that ultimatum from a position of weakness, this can only end in Republican defeat. Realistically, there can be no other outcome.
From this impossible position, Mr. Boehner must now somehow find a way forward that prevents a default and that gets the government running again while contending with the Tea Party militants. One way would be for the Speaker to expend whatever political capital he still has to round up 20 or so moderate Republican representatives and deliver their votes to the Democrats in the House.
Such a move would probably cost Mr. Boehner his speakership, as enraged Tea Partiers sought revenge. But he would at least have prevented the world's largest economy and the holder of the reserve currency from fatally debasing its credit worthiness.
If Mr. Boehner is unable or unwilling to throw what support he can muster to the Democrats, then things get very grim. The Democratic leadership will be under pressure to abandon Obamacare, rather than risk a default.
But to do so would create a horrible precedent, in which any future Congressional minority would be able to blackmail any majority at any time on any issue, simply by threatening to force a default. That truly would make the United States ungovernable. No president of any political persuasion would ever submit to such coercion.
The only other hope–if Mr. Boehner is not prepared, in effect, to cross the floor–is for a majority of Republican representatives to eventually weary of this unwinnable fight. If and when that happens, Mr. Boehner may be able to secure a surrender on his own terms. But it will still be a surrender. And will it happen in time to prevent a default?
"This was a dead-end policy from the start," declared Republic Rep. Peter King of New York to Politico.com. He has never been enamoured of his Tea Party compatriots.
"…They know it's wrong, they know it's crazy. But it's like 'The Wizard of Oz': nobody wants to say that there's nothing behind the curtain," he explained.
Which is why, to repeat, this only ends with Republican defeat. When and how Mr. Boehner is able to persuade his colleagues to accept that defeat will determine how grim this month becomes.
John Ibbitson is the chief political writer in the Ottawa bureau.