Reopening America’s government

The sharemarket is happy this morning, with reports that Democrat and Republican negotiators are close to a deal that would end the partial shutdown of the United States government and extend the country’s debt ceiling, allowing it to continue paying its bills beyond the end of this week.

As the New York Times puts it:

Negotiators talked into the evening as senators from both parties coalesced around a plan that would lift the debt limit through Feb. 7, pass a resolution to finance the government through Jan. 15 and conclude formal discussions on a long-term tax and spending plan no later than Dec. 13, according to one Senate aide briefed on the plan.

This is fairly unambitious stuff. Talks on “a long-term tax and spending plan” have been promised before, and there seems nothing to indicate they’ll be any more fruitful this time. And providing for only three months of further spending creates the opportunity to re-enact the whole drama come January.

But from the administration’s point of view, the important thing is that no significant policy concessions seem to have been made in order to get to this stage (the only things mentioned are some minor amendments to the health care legislation). Barack Obama can claim to have held fast to his promise not to negotiate over the debt ceiling increase, and the larger policy objectives of the Republican caucus will have to be abandoned – as was always likely.

Getting such a deal through the House of Representatives is no certainty. Conservative Republicans will see any deal to authorise further spending as a sell-out, and even their less conservative colleagues are worried about being challenged from their right. The Times quotes one representative, Tim Huelskamp of Kansas, saying that “Anybody who would vote for that in the House as Republican would virtually guarantee a primary challenger.”

The problem, in other words, is not just the strange intellectual currents within the Republican Party (about which I’ve written before), but the way in which the American electoral system reinforces them. Geographical polarisation, aided by gerrymandering, has created a multitude of ultra-safe seats where Republican incumbents have nothing to fear from the voters at large but have a great deal to fear from extremist “tea-party” challengers in the primaries.

But the Republican Senate leadership would not have come this far unless it thought that the House Republican leadership was at least broadly on side. There’s no doubt that there will be enough votes in the House: Democrats will back a deal solidly, and they only need another twenty or so Republican votes for a majority. The key thing is the willingness of speaker John Boehner to allow any deal to come to a vote.

Boehner has concerns about his own job. Jon Chait today suggests that “the main question that remains is whether Republicans will be angry enough to skin Boehner alive.” But the Republican Party has been taking a lot of heat in the opinion polls over the crisis, so its powers of resistance may now be low enough for both passage of a deal and Boehner’s survival.

Whether they will then recover enough to replay the whole affair in three months’ time remains to be seen.

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