The party, not the person, matters in 2014

The New York Times has a fun map showing the geography of the Wednesday’s U.S. House vote to end the government shutdown and avoid a default on the national debt. The vote was 285 to 144 in favor of the Senate plan.

Political scientist Jeff Weintraub (via Andrew Sullivan) is troubled by the holdouts:


All the negative votes were Republican. This means that among the 232 Republican Representatives in the House, 144 voted to kill the deal. […] Even at the bitter end, on the last possible day to defuse the crisis before the debt ceiling was breached, over 60% of House Republicans voted to push the US government into default, with incalculable but almost certainly catastrophic consequences. This is a very important point, with very ominous implications, that shouldn't be forgotten or obscured.

The identity of the “no” votes is interesting from a historical perspective, but I’m not sure this roll call will mean much in November 2014. It’s usually safer to be on the losing side of a legislative vote: You don’t have to defend the outcome, and you can only be attacked on a counterfactual. (Attack ads that say, “Imagine what would have happened” are trickier than “Look what happened!”) The Republicans will lose the House next year only if their brand is so damaged that practically everyone with the party label suffers, no matter how they voted this October. (As I wrote in “We’ve Already Got a Three-Party System, and It’s a Disaster,” the Tea Party has the advantage of not being listed on any ballot.)

And as the Monkey Cage’s David Karol writes, even the holdouts on the Senate plan implicitly allowed it to pass before a U.S. default:

…one fact that most academic analysts and journalists are leaving out is how the vote reached the floor of the House. It did so by unanimous consent. Typically a measure goes through the Rules Committee and a rule is written governing how a bill will be debated on the floor, whether amendments will be allowed etc. In this case, a simple unanimous consent motion was made and no one objected or asked for a recorded vote.

This means that all the representatives, including the diehard, compromise-is-a-dirty-word tea party representatives, let this bill go through. Similarly in the Senate, where a single senator could still have slowed down the process, the likely suspects—including Ted Cruz and Mike Lee —chose not to do so.

This raises a question: Will any Tea Party member of Congress be unseated by a Super Tea Party member vowing to never give unanimous consent to anything?

As with most legislative votes, we’ll never really know how many of the 144 “no” representatives might have switched sides if needed. For various reasons (fundraising, a possible primary challenge from the right), some congressmen undoubtedly wanted to vote “no” even while hoping that the bill passed. As conservatives have pointed out, Barack Obama voted against raising the debt ceiling when he was a U.S. senator and George W. Bush was president in 2006, doing so in the knowledge that there were enough Republican votes to raise the ceiling without him. Surely some of today’s House Republicans were making the same calculation.

The New York Times map shows a strange division among Republicans in the middle of the country. Most GOP House members in Arkansas, Colorado, Illinois, Kentucky, and Nebraska supported the Senate plan. Most Republicans from the adjoining states of Indiana, Missouri, Oklahoma, and Tennessee voted against it. My guess is that fundraising and primary-election factors, and even matters of conscience, account for the crazy-quilt pattern. But I wouldn’t read too much into the roll call in predicting who might be in trouble next November (among those who survive the primaries). GOP-held districts with a high number of Obama voters will be the most likely to flip, and the Democrats will need to ride a big national wave to get a House majority.

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