Spirit of sine die wafts over Washington budget standoff

By Tom Baxter

When I was an intern reporter at the Montgomery Advertiser, there used to be a basement bar downtown that I’d hit with the older guys after our late-night deadlines.

A keyboardist who was a music professor at Alabama State would arrive an hour or so later, and sometimes in the wee hours he’d be joined by other musicians who’d finished their gigs elsewhere. He played a fine, cool version of “Yellow Bird.”

One of my most lasting memories from those days was the night the Alabama legislature finished its session and, to my astonishment, the bar ran completely out of liquor.

Some may been shocked when a reporter covering the U.S. House vote tweeted that members walking off the House floor Saturday night reeked of booze. Having by now covered the finales of many legislative sessions, I wasn’t so surprised. “Yellow Bird”  came lilting back into my mind.

The circumstances are different, but much of the same crazy energy which seizes a legislature as the hour approaches sine die seems to be coursing through this last-ditch effort to use the federal budget negotiations as a vehicle to derail ObamaCare. Everybody’s not drunk, but the atmosphere is drunken. Grown people read children’s stories, and in their frenzied machinations end up voting against themselves.

It may be painful for the Americans affected, especially if things really break down and a government shutdown drags on. But you get the distinct impression that so far, many of those involved are having a lot of fun. They’re making a lot of money, as well. Monday happens to be the last reporting day in the quarter for federal races, and both Democratic and Republican politicians were using the budget standoff as the hook for impassioned last-minute entreaties for cash.

There may be some more twists and turns, but Congress has to get ready for its next fiscal crisis, scheduled for mid-October when the debt limit is reached. The outcome of the current standoff was accurately summarized last Friday by Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Ariz., a vocal critic of his fellow party members who still think the Democrats will blink at the last minute.

“You do not take a hostage you are not going to for sure shoot. And we will not for sure shoot this hostage,” Coburn said.

A lot of polls have been conducted to measure the public response to the prospect of a shutdown, which proved so unpopular when the Newt Gingrich-led Congress let one happen in 1995. None of them are likely to be as important to the outcome of this battle as a Gallup Poll  of uninsured Americans about what they intend to do when public enrollment in the new health exchanges begins Tuesday.

It can be read both ways, and will be. The poll says 25 percent of the uninsured intend to pay the fine rather than sign up for government-mandated health insurance, which will be a sign to Republicans that even among the uninsured, there’s a hard-core opposition to the law.

The poll shows that 65 percent of those polled do intend to sign up, which will be a sign to Democrats that the numbers, and time, are solidly on their side. From the first talk of death panels, opposition to ObamaCare has been intensely hyperbolized, to the point where even a modestly successful launch for the next stage of the law’s implementation can be dressed up to look like a major victory for the Administration.

Strategically, the Republicans would probably have been better off to let the new system accumulate its share of botched starts and failures instead of trying to head it off before the health exchanges and the Medicaid expansion kick in.

But there’s a certain amount of truth in the Democratic claim that Republicans fear the success of ObamaCare more than its failure. They understand that when millions of Americans begin participating in the system, the debate will shift, as it has in the United Kingdom, to one about what to do with a program they can’t get rid of.

To put it a little differently, Republican politics has been organized around resistance to ObamaCare for the past six years, and they hate to let it go. So for one  last weekend, the congressional Republicans fought that good fight legislators fight in their concluding hours and — symbolically, at least — drank the bar dry.

Now the weekend has hung over into the week, and the serious headache begins.

Tom Baxter has written about politics and the South for more than four decades. He was national editor and chief political correspondent at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and later edited The Southern Political Report, an online publication, for four years. Tom was the consultant for the 2008 election night coverage sponsored jointly by Current TV, Digg and Twitter, and a 2011 fellow at the Robert J. Dole Institute of Politics at the University of Kansas. He has written about the impact of Georgia’s and Alabama's immigration laws in reports for the Center for American Progress. Tom and his wife, Lili, have three adult children and seven grandchildren.

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