Will Republican Moderates Really Allow the Government to Reopen?

The latest rhetorical tool the President and his allies are using on John Boehner is telling him to put his money where his mouth is, specifically on the "clean" continuing resolution passed by the Senate. Boehner claims that if he allowed a clean CR to be voted on in the House, it would fail, so he must continue to demand a pound of flesh from the administration as the price of reopening the government. Barack Obama's response is, if that's true, then why not let it come up for a vote and see what happens? In recent days, a couple of news organizations have made counts of the Republican "moderates" (not all of whom are actually moderate) who have made public comments indicating they would support a clean CR. As of now, The Washington Post's tally has 21 Republicans in favor; combine them with the 200 Democrats, all of whom are likely to vote for the clean CR, and you've got a majority. But would these moderates follow through if it came to a vote?

As David Karol says in an excellent post on the topic of the moderates, "In general, Congressional moderates are more closely aligned to their parties than is understood. Often their defections from party ranks occur when it is clear that their party does not need their votes to prevail on a given issue." This is sometimes accomplished with a strategy that came to be known back when Tom DeLay was running things as "catch and release." The leadership makes sure it can win the vote, then slowly releases its moderates one at a time, allowing them to vote against the party so they can tout their independence but not threatening the outcome.

But that isn't the case here—there's a real question of which side would prevail. That means Republicans will be pressuring their moderates to stay in the fold. Karol also notes that even a Republican from a swing district could face a threat from a Tea Party challenger in a primary. Even if that challenger ends up losing the general election, if he beats you in the primary, you're still just as unemployed. So the question is whether the pressure on the moderates from within their party is greater or lesser than the pressure coming in the other direction.

And what would produce pressure in favor of keeping the government open? The answer for almost all of them (in a moment we'll get to why it's almost all and not all) is, public attention. One of they key factors influencing the course of this crisis is that the Republican members driving the shutdown come from extremely conservative districts, so even though the vast majority of the public as a whole wants this thing to end and thinks it's inappropriate to hold the economy hostage in this way, those sentiments are not reflected in those members' home districts.

But if you come from a swing district, it's a different story. If the moderates find themselves on the front page of their local newspapers and on their local TV news shows, under headlines like, "Will Congressman Smith reopen the government?" they may start feeling the heat. For those moderates, the best of all possible worlds is to be there for your party when they need you, but to have the freedom for the occasional high-profile defection to prove your independence. The higher the profile of this vote is raised, the more likely it is they'll defect.

So who are these moderates? Let's use the Post's list of 21. Three of them—Frank Wolf, Scott Rigell, and Rob Wittman—are from Virginia, and have healthy numbers of federal workers in their districts. Fourteen hail from real swing districts, where the Partisan Voter Index, which measures the partisan leaning of the district compared to the country as a whole, is two points or less in a Republican direction. In fact, two of these members—Frank LoBiondo of New Jersey and Mike Coffman of Colorado—represent districts that are more Democratic than the country as a whole. Almost all of those 14 won their 2012 races by relatively close margins, at least compared to the blowouts most members of Congress enjoy (Coffman and Bill Young of Florida failed to top 50 percent despite winning).

There are, however, a couple of outliers. Mike Simpson of Idaho and Tom Cole of Oklahoma are both very conservative members from very conservative districts, yet have said they support a clean CR. You could easily see them deciding in the end that they'll stick with the team after all. Some of the other ones could crumble under pressure from their leadership, too. And if this number of 21 is accurate, even if all 200 Democrats stick together, you'd only need four defections from the GOP moderates to defeat the clean CR.

On the other hand, a lot of Republicans haven't said how they'll vote, so you could also find more people coming over to vote in favor of a clean CR And the more attention it gets—with a bunch of breathless coverage leading up to the vote, every member being chased by reporters demanding to know where they stand, and so on—the more the vote is likely to be judged by voters as one on opening the government or keeping it shut. Of course, that all depends on Boehner allowing the vote. This could offer him a way out—he'll say, "Fine, I'll allow the vote just to show you the votes aren't there!" And then when the votes are there, the crisis is over and he can say he fought like hell for whatever it is he's fighting for, but the party just couldn't hang together.

Right now, the more the White House and Democrats keep repeating that Boehner should just put his money where his mouth is and hold the vote, the more the potential for a vote will take over coverage of the issue and the more the pressure will rise. It just might be the way out of this thing.

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