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Good old-fashioned bipartisanship can end McCarthy's cartoonish plight

The struggle of House Republicans — under the very precarious leadership of Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) — to come up with even a short-term deal to keep the federal government functioning is a deadlocked disaster. 

I must qualify that statement by adding “as of this writing.” But I feel confident in my lack of confidence that no meaningful progress will be made, up until or even beyond the Sept. 30 fiscal year deadline for crafting an agreement.    

Republican hardliners in the House Freedom Caucus and what remains of mainstream Republicans have been tossing around attempts at a continuing resolution to at the very least keep the lights on, but they resemble cartoon characters in a slapstick comedy sketch, juggling a stick of TNT with a burning fuse.   

We can be reasonably sure of the contours of the shutdown fight because this is a shell-hole-pocked road that we have been down many times before. In a Washington that has recently jettisoned countless treasured and helpful norms, somehow this macabre dance with disaster has become a dysfunctional norm of its own.  

“Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results” is a quote usually attributed to Albert Einstein. But the proof of the saying has been provided in recent decades in countless GOP-initiated government shutdowns. Not one of them has had any positive effect, beyond damaging Republicans in subsequent elections. Yet GOP politicians just can’t seem to quit them. Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has just warned his party that government shutdowns “have always been a loser for Republicans.”  

So, light another stick of TNT and start juggling. Nobody has been more cartoonish in the bumbling prelude to this latest looming shutdown than McCarthy, Speaker of the House by unpopular acclimation. McCarthy ascended to his wobbly throne by agreeing to allow a single vote to be enough to trigger a motion to vacate, which is to say, to eject McCarthy from his unsteady perch. He’s in a golden cage with a continuous threat of eviction.  

How did Kevin McCarthy come to this? And how can he avoid a government shutdown or his own defenestration, or both? It’s instructive to take a quick look back at a couple of the most recent GOP shutdown scenarios.  

In 2015, a shutdown over funding for Planned Parenthood was averted when then-Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) accepted the cooperation of Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) — Gasp! — and other Democrats to get the votes to fund the government. Since the shutdown problem is invariably in rounding up the vote from the truculent segments of the GOP, you would think that enlisting the aid of Democrats would be a no-brainer. But bipartisanship is anathema to the current GOP and is only resorted to at a heavy cost. Indeed, John Boehner resigned during the process, although he has always maintained that was planned in advance.  

The shutdown drama in January 2018 centered on the Senate as Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.) successfully wrangled approval for a spending bill in the House. The disparate caucuses within the Republican tent were no doubt motivated to come up with a workable plan due to well-justified fears of a midterm shellacking. 

In the end, the Senate came around after a three-day shutdown that avoided catastrophic disruptions, with McConnell noting that “It’s evident that this government shutdown is doing nothing, absolutely nothing to generate bipartisan progress on the issues the American public care about.”  

If those shutdowns were mostly dodged by maverick bipartisanship and a simple desire for self-preservation, in today’s political arena bipartisanship is scarcer than ever, and even self-preservation seems overrated to the bomb-tossing segments of the Freedom Caucus.  

The result is a frenetic situation in which Speaker McCarthy is tossing out a new plan every day, seemingly guaranteeing a shutdown. But a look back made several things clear in terms of averting a shutdown: 

  • Where there’s goodwill, there is always a way. As shocking as the House Republicans’ actions are in driving toward a shutdown, there are policy and funding agreements that can be worked out when parties are willing to negotiate in good faith. Even McCarthy was able to negotiate the debt limit agreement with the White House earlier this year. 
  • The bipartisan approach in the Senate shows the path forward on how to avoid a shutdown. The Senate (for goodness sake) broke historical gridlock and adopted all 12 appropriations bills on an overwhelmingly bipartisan basis because Sens. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine) sat in a room and negotiated in good faith. That is the way to proceed from this point forward. 
  • Republicans never win shutdown fights — either on substance or on politics. It costs the taxpayer more money, it erodes any trust in the government to deliver the most important services and politically it’s a disaster. That’s why McConnell and senior Republicans — not just appropriators — think this is a bad idea. 
  • The House Republicans stand all alone — with their own counterparts strongly and publicly rejecting their legislative proposals and approach to appropriations. 
  • House Democrats have been willing to cast their votes over the years in favor of bipartisan proposals, even to pass rules. So the vote majority exists — even in the House — to pass reasonable compromises. The Democrats are responsible players and have proven that time and again.  

Hindsight clearly shows that in the end, an approach based on the above principles and observations is a ticket to averting or at least minimizing any shutdown. The only good part about having so many shutdowns is that we have plenty of prior experience dealing with these self-inflicted disasters.   

This isn’t rocket science. The idea that a totally out-of-sync radical minority can dictate terms in a divided government and, in this instance against members of their own party in both the House and Senate, is not reality.  

Doing the same thing over and over is only insanity if you don’t like the results you keep getting. Common-sense approaches reflect what has ultimately worked to mitigate shutdowns in the past. In this case, doing the same things to avert this shutdown is the sane choice. 

Donna Brazile is a political strategist, a contributor to ABC News and former chair of the Democratic National Committee. She is the author of “Hacks: Inside the Break-ins and Breakdowns That Put Donald Trump in the White House.”

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