WASHINGTON — There was a bit of a sea change in Washington this week. The Republican-controlled House of Representatives easily passed a $1.1 trillion budget bill that will keep the government funded through September. Yes, the very same Republican House that led last October’s 16 day government shutdown that was hugely unpopular with voters.
Republicans got the lion’s share of the blame for the shutdown and it looks as though Republican congressional leaders got the message. House Speaker John Boehner started blasting some independent conservative groups last month that had supported the shutdown, and it was clear that a national shift in public opinion about the Tea Party was having an impact.
This budget deal is a compromise. Democrats are happy about more money for social welfare programs like Head Start and food aid for poor pregnant women. The government will no longer be under the sequester cuts imposed last year when lawmakers could not reach an agreement. Republicans are pleased with cuts to some agencies including the Internal Revenue Service as well as foreign aid programs. They will be able to run re-election campaigns touting a rollback in government spending in general over the past several years.
So who’s unhappy? Tea Party supporters in Congress. 166 House Republicans supported the budget bill while 64 voted no. Last October, those 64 were among the leaders of the effort to shut down the government over objections to President Barack Obama’s health care law.
To be sure, Republicans will continue to hammer away at the Affordable Care Act this year in the run up to the midterm congressional elections in November. And the Tea Party will remain a force in Republican primary battles this year. No incumbent wants to face a Tea Party challenger backed by conservative fundraising machines like FreedomWorks and Heritage Action for America.
But there is no question that last year’s government shutdown hurt the image of the Republican Party with the public, and mainstream Republicans are now moving to limit the influence of the Tea Party movement without losing the support of their fervent followers. It will remain a delicate dance.
Christie’s troubles provide opening for 2016 rivals
So which Republican White House hopefuls are helped by New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s ‘Bridgegate’ scandal? It’s clearly too early to know for sure and much will depend on what, if anything, comes out in the weeks to come. If Christie is backed up in his claim that he knew nothing about his aides orchestrating traffic problems on the New Jersey side of the George Washington Bridge, apparently as an act of political retaliation, he might be able to emerge as a still viable presidential contender in 2016.
But if information comes to light that Christie knew more about the bridge issue than he acknowledged it could damage his White House prospects beyond repair. The governor tried to change the subject with his recent State of the State address focused on education reform and bipartisanship. But the legislative probes into ‘Bridgegate’ are getting underway and it’s likely the governor will come under media scrutiny for months.
We are now in the early stages of the kind of ‘drip, drip’ scandal that politicians hate. For Christie’s potential rivals for the 2016 Republican Party presidential nomination, this is a great time to lie low and let the story play out. Among those likely enjoying the drama most is Kentucky Senator Rand Paul. Paul gives a lot of indications of running two years from now and has clashed with Christie in the past over spending. Last year he called Christie “the king of bacon” in the wake of the governor’s efforts to secure federal help for New Jersey in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy.
The latest NBC News/Marist poll shows Christie is still at the top of the list of potential Republican candidates for 2016 at 16 percent. That’s only down slightly from last month when he was at 18 percent. Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan follows at 12 percent and Senator Rand Paul is at 9 percent. One candidate who has dropped more than anyone else in the past month is Texas Senator Ted Cruz, a big supporter of last year’s government shutdown. Cruz was at 10 percent last month but has dropped to only 5 percent in the latest survey.
Cruz’s rating may have taken a hit because of the negative fallout from the government shutdown. In a perfect world for Chris Christie, that might make him more appealing to Republican voters in 2016 looking for a candidate with a proven record of bipartisanship. But until Christie can get out from under the shadow of the traffic scandal, he’ll have to hope that Republican voters at the very least suspend their judgment for a while as to how worthy a presidential contender he might be.