Throughout the federal shutdown, President Obama has challenged House Speaker John Boehner to call an up-or-down vote on legislation to reopen the government. Mostly, Obama has done this in the name of good policy. Today, he sharpened the attack. He’s telling Boehner to call the vote so that congressmen who oppose the bill can be exposed and thrown out of office.
Many House Republicans have proudly affirmed that they won’t reopen the entire government unless Obama agrees to change his health care law. But others have ducked or hedged. They haven’t been forced to vote up or down on a “clean” resolution to continue funding the government—which the Senate has already passed—because Boehner has kept that resolution off the House floor. In effect, this protects them from accountability in next year’s elections. They can’t be convicted of choosing to extend the shutdown.
In the week since the shutdown began, the White House has pounded Boehner for refusing to bring up the bill. Look at the headlines on the White House blog. Thursday: “President Obama: Just Vote and End This Shutdown.” Friday: “West Wing Week: 10/04/13 or ‘#JustVote and End This Shutdown.’ ” Monday: “President Obama: ‘Call A Vote Right Now.’ ” In speeches, statements, and interviews, Obama has called out Boehner and demanded a vote.
But Obama’s tone has changed. In last week’s volleys, he accused Boehner of blocking the vote to hide the fact that Republicans opposed the shutdown. According to the president, the speaker was trying to prolong the impasse “to hold out to see if he can get additional concessions.” Boehner, knuckling under to “extremists in his party,” was thwarting moderate Republicans who wanted to reopen the government. If “every congressman could vote their conscience, the shutdown would end today,” said the president.
On Sunday, Boehner denied that the bill would pass. “There are not the votes in the House to pass a clean CR,” he insisted. When George Stephanopoulos pointed out that all Democrats and 21 Republicans were already on record endorsing such a bill, Boehner changed the subject. He had no answer.
Today, Obama called a press conference and turned up the pressure: “Speaker Boehner keeps on saying he doesn’t have the votes for it. And what I’ve said is, put it on the floor. See what happens. And at minimum, let every member of Congress be on record. Let them vote to keep the government open or not. They can determine where they stand and defend that vote to their constituencies. And let them vote on whether or not America should pay its bills or not. And if in fact some of these folks really believe that it’s not that big of a deal, they can vote no. And that’ll be useful information for voters to have. And if it fails, and we do end up defaulting, I think voters should know exactly who voted not to pay our bills, so that they can be responsible for the consequences that come with it.”
Ouch. Be on record. Defend that vote to their constituencies. Useful information for voters. That’s not a policy message. It’s a political message. Obama isn’t asking Boehner to free House Republicans so they can vote their consciences. He’s telling Boehner to stop protecting them from having to cast a vote that might hurt them in the next election.
Why the shift? I’d guess two reasons. One, the appeal to conscience hasn’t worked. Not enough House Republicans have come forward to ask for a vote. Two, the most recent polls have convinced Obama that the electorate is on his side. He’s confident that if Republicans cast this vote based on political fallout rather than conscience, he’ll win. And if he doesn’t get their votes, he’ll get their scalps.