On Thursday afternoon, as the government shutdown entered its third day, a Republican member of the House sat down with a group of reporters in an office building not far from the Capitol. He spoke on the condition that he be referred to only as a House lawmaker, but without betraying the agreement it's fair to say his was a perspective well worth listening to. The congressman walked the group through a set of issues involved in the shutdown -- the continuing resolution, House-Senate relations, the coming debt limit talks, and more -- but what was perhaps most striking was his frank talk about how the GOP leadership got itself into its current predicament. What became clear after an hour of discussion was that the House Republican leadership's position at the moment is the result of happenstance, blundering, and a continuing inability to understand the priorities of both GOP and Democratic colleagues.
The congressman began with an anecdote from the Civil War. "I would liken this a little bit to Gettysburg, where a Confederate unit went looking for shoes and stumbled into Union cavalry, and all of a sudden found itself embroiled in battle on a battlefield it didn't intend to be on, and everybody just kept feeding troops into it," the congressman said. "That's basically what's happening now in a political sense. This isn't exactly the fight I think Republicans wanted to have, certainly that the leadership wanted to have, but it's the fight that's here."
When the September 30 deadline for funding the government was still weeks away, the lawmaker explained, he never thought Republicans and Democrats would fail to reach agreement on a continuing resolution. "To be honest with you, I did not think we'd be in a government shutdown situation," he said. "I'm surprised that we're here." The congressman frankly admitted that he never saw the intensity of the party base's opposition to Obamacare that came to the fore in the August recess. "I think that probably the Cruz phenomenon had a lot to do with that," he said, referring to the campaign by Texas Republican Sen. Ted Cruz to raise support for an effort to defund Obamacare. "I think it disrupted everybody's plans, both in the administration and certainly the House Republican leadership."
As the congressman told the story, as August progressed — and Cruz, along with a few Senate colleagues, the Heritage Foundation, and others, ran a high-profile campaign to stir public opinion against Obamacare — the House GOP leadership was mostly unaware of what was going on. "They got surprised a little bit by the Obamacare thing," the lawmaker said. "This was something that blew up in August. Nobody really saw it coming — probably should have a little bit, I'm not being critical of anybody in that regard, on either side of this — but it just happened."
Even after the events of August, and the rise of Cruz forced House Republicans to take notice, GOP leaders had little understanding of the course that the conflict, both inside the House Republican conference and with Senate Democrats, would eventually take. "I never thought defund, and honestly, I never thought delay, would work," the lawmaker said. "I think the Democrats very much need the exchanges to come on and work to finally create a constituency for [Obamacare]…so I never thought they would agree on that."
Still, the lawmaker thought Senate Democrats, and Majority Leader Harry Reid, would make some sort of concession on a lesser aspect of Obamacare. "I do think, though, when Boehner sent over delay and [repeal of the] medical device tax, I think he thought he'd probably get back medical device, and that would have probably been enough right there," the congressman said. But Reid and the Democrats steadfastly refused to consider any change to Obamacare, surprising Republicans again. "When [Boehner] didn't get medical device, I think he did something he didn't want to do, which was send over the member health care [the Vitter amendment barring Congress from receiving special subsidies on the Obamacare exchanges]. And I think he did that largely because he thought [Democrats] were trying to jam him." When Boehner lowered his demands to include a delay for just the individual mandate — not for all of Obamacare — Republicans thought Democrats would be open to that more modest proposal.
"Instead, it's no, we're not going to negotiate, we're not going to negotiate, we're not going to negotiate," the lawmaker said. "Which means effectively you're going to try to humiliate the Speaker in front of his conference. And how effective a negotiating partner do you think he'll be then? You're putting the guy in a position where he's got nothing to lose, because you're not giving him anything to win."
The result of Reid's intransigence, coming after multiple Republican miscalculations, was that both sides dug in. Whatever chance there had been of a settlement before — and there really wasn't much of one, once the events of August began to unfold — there was zero possibility of a deal as September 30 approached. So the shutdown that House leadership never expected came. And it lasted more than the few days some predicted. And it is still going on as the October 17 deadline for raising the nation's debt ceiling approaches. The crisis that House Republican leaders didn't see coming is now consuming them, with unpredictable consequences. "We're not in a situation that has been planned out and war-gamed and plotted, OK?" said the congressman. "We stumbled into a situation like Gettysburg that nobody planned, and all of a sudden each side is feeding more troops into it, and it's turning into a much bigger deal."
What comes now? Not surprisingly, the lawmaker didn't know. But he felt safe predicting it would be just as chaotic as events of the last few weeks. "I don't think that either Boehner or the president really have much of a plan beyond the next 24 hours," the congressman said. "Does this look like a planned-out operation?"