In the wake of the deal that (at least temporarily) derailed the Nuclear Option on judicial nominations, the most striking thing about the reaction has been the general satisfaction of Democrats and even much of the blogospheric Left, and the glumness of Republicans, along with angry hysterics among the leadership of the Cultural Right. Sure, there’s a heap o’ spinning going on all around, but the fury of guys like Dobson and Bauer appears genuine, and there is a general agreement across the ideological spectrum that the whole incident represents a big body blow to the presidential aspirations of Bill Frist, and perhaps to his future viability as Boss of the Senate.But in terms of unhappiness on the Right, the question remains: whose idea, exactly, was it to make this issue so central to the GOP/Religious Conservative alliance? My general assumption has been that the Nuclear Strategy was forced onto the White House and the Republican Party by a Cultural Right that’s finally demanding results from their partners on an agenda–overturning abortion rights, reversing gay rights advances, and stopping all this church-state separation crap–that depends on reshaping the Supreme Court. But in an interesting essay today, the estimable Mark Schmitt, citing an exceptionally articulate post on the conservative site redstate.org, suggests that maybe it’s the other way around: the Nuclear Option is just another cynical effort by the GOP to get the Cultural Right fully invested in their D.C. power games.So, with apologies to Aretha Franklin, the question is: Who’s zoomin’ who here?Not being privy to the internal councils of the Republican Party or the Cultural Right, I talked to a couple of smart conservatives of my acquaintance, and came away convinced that there is truth to both perspectives. The general strategy of focusing obsessively on judges was forced on the GOP by the Cultural Right. But the specific tactic of the Nuclear Option was developed by legal beagles on the Hill and in the cells of the Federalist Society as a way to placate the Cultural Right without entering into an immediate and explosive national debate on the shape of the Supreme Court, and issues like abortion, gay rights, and church-state separation.Here’s pretty much, I gather, how the thing was put together. Cultural Right leaders, growing angrier for years about the excuses being made by D.C. Republicans for failure to make progress on their agenda, finally started getting fed up after the 2004 elections created the great judicial opportunity of a second Bush term, and the largest GOP majority in the Senate since 1930. Tired of hearing that Republicans couldn’t do anything about the godless judges without 60 votes, they basically said, “Figure something out.” And that’s where the Nuclear Option came in.As fate would have it, the Schiavo fiasco occurred during the run-up to the judicial confrontation, vastly increasing the investment of the Cultural Right in this issue. And then Bill Frist decided this was his ticket to the 2008 Iowa Caucuses.So everybody rolled the dice and then crapped out. And the irony of the incident (unless, as is entirely possible, the Nuclear Option is revived and deployed later this year) is that while this may not have begun as a cynical beltway scam designed to frustrate the foot soldiers of the Right, that may be how it’s being interpreted by said foot soldiers at the moment.After all, some of them must be aware that the segment of Senate Republicans who are relieved about The Deal is not confined to the seven GOPers who formally signed it (dubbed “the Satanic Seven” by some angry talk show callers today, according to water-cooler intel from my semi-omniscient colleague The Moose). Arlen Specter and Trent Lott didn’t sign The Deal, and everybody thinks they were involved in cooking it up. How confident can the Cultural Right be that when push comes to shove in a future Supreme Court nomination fight, the White House can be trusted to send up a sure vote to overturn Roe. v. Wade, or that these slippery Senate Republicans will get that sure vote confirmed, through either conventional or nuclear weapons?In other words, this incident is going to vastly raise the stakes, and the penalty for failure, in future judicial fights, with the whole elaborately constructed, and politically and spiritually hazardous, relationship of the Cultural Right and the GOP hanging in the balance.
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By Ed Kilgore
Fortunately, the federal government will stay open through the holidays, but Democrats must stay vigilant, since the nihilist forces that keep bringing Congress to the brink have not gone away, as I explained at New York:
After his success in passing a two-tiered stopgap spending bill with a ton of Democratic votes and quiet concurrence from the Democratic-controlled Senate and the White House, freshly minted House Speaker Mike Johnson hastily retreated into a Thanksgiving recess with angry shouts from his erstwhile hard-core MAGA allies echoing in his ears, as Punchbowl News reports:
“Rep. Chip Roy (R-Texas), policy chair for the House Freedom Caucus, went to the House floor and angrily bashed the GOP leadership after members had bolted town on Wednesday, a bitter ending to a grueling 10-week marathon for the chamber.
“’I want my Republican colleagues to give me one thing — one — that I can go campaign on and say we did. One!’ Roy yelled during a speech in an otherwise empty House chamber.
“’Anybody sitting in the complex, you want to come down to the floor and come explain to me one material, meaningful, significant thing the Republican majority has done besides, well, I guess it’s not as bad as the Democrats.’”
Among the “material, significant things” Roy and others among the 93 House Republicans who voted against Johnson’s plan wanted were deep spending cuts in disfavored areas of the federal government and perhaps some symbolic policy shibboleths smiting abortion providers or transgender athletes or tax collectors. Such items would have been treated by Democrats and even some Republicans as poison pills, which is why Johnson’s “clean” stopgap bill didn’t include them. The new Speaker’s support for a “clean” bill and his reliance on Democratic voters are precisely the actions that got old Speaker Kevin McCarthy tossed out on his ear. Thanks to Johnson’s past record of rigorous right-wing orthodoxy (and perhaps exhaustion following the long fight over McCarthy’s successor), his rebellious friends appear to have given him a mulligan. But it probably won’t last.
A new government shutdown threat will likely appear once the first “tier” of the stopgap bill expires on January 19. Indeed, the hard-liners are already firing shots across Johnson’s bow, as Politico reports:
“Hardliners sunk any chances of passage for two additional funding bills this week — marking a major setback for Speaker Mike Johnson less than 24 hours after working with Democrats to pass a bill that would thwart a shutdown deadline Saturday …
“GOP leadership then canceled the rest of the votes for the week, with Republicans predicting that Johnson’s spending headache won’t get any easier once they return at the end of the month.
“Instead, members of the Freedom Caucus vowed to continue blocking House Republicans’ remaining five funding bills. They urged Johnson to come up with a plan that would cut spending for the fiscal year that began on Oct. 1, without any accounting tricks.”
What makes this revolt even more significant is that Freedom Caucus types are really obsessed with the need to enact individual appropriations bills instead of the catchall measures they believe endemic to out-of-control federal spending. A big part of the rationale for Johnson’s two-tiered stopgap was to provide enough time — and no more — for passage of these individual bills. But now HFC leaders are sabotaging that very possibility out of a fit of pique, in an exceptional example of what it means to cut off your nose to spite your face.
The thing is, Senate Democrats and the White House aren’t going to bend to Chip Roy’s definition of what the American people want or need between now and the time the next shutdown crisis arrives (indeed, a collision over aid to Ukraine and border policy contained in the president’s supplemental spending proposal will likely come to a head before Christmas). So the shutdown threat may have simply been deferred for a bit even as House GOP hard-liners flagellate themselves for letting Johnson off the hook for the exact sins that damned McCarthy. Enjoy the holidays, federal employees. But stash away some provisions for what could be a stormy winter.