Americans preparing for this year's holiday season got a nasty pre-Christmas present from the U.S. House of Representatives. Inches from the goal line for a balanced deal to avert the fiscal cliff and give a jumpstart to the economy, Speaker John Boehner (R-OH), based on signals from his House Republican conference, pulled back from negotiations with the president and offered a "Plan B," an effort presumably intended to gain more traction with the White House by agreeing to a compromise that at least raised the tax rates of millionaires. But then, to his immense embarrassment, he was rebuffed by his own members, who feared primary attacks led by the Club for Growth.
The Boehner flameout on Plan B (previously known as "the morning after pill," now known as "the hangover") does not preclude a last-minute deal at the end of December or even a later-than-last-minute deal after Jan. 1, ostensibly following an adverse reaction by stock and bond markets and ratings agencies. But it underscores how seriously dysfunctional the House continues to be. Boehner reverted to a backup plan because he would not craft a compromise that, if brought to the House floor, would require at least as many votes from Democrats as Republicans -- instead, acting as if he represented a parliamentary party, Boehner wanted to find a package that would be supported by his own side alone.
Boehner's failure to rally his troops showed another side of the mismatch between our parties and our political system: the driving force in today's Republican Party is its radical rightist fringe, inside and outside Congress. At least 50 and probably more GOPers in the House are largely immune to wider political trends, broader American public opinion, or for that matter the overall results of an election. Their districts, partly through redistricting, partly through the broader "Big Sort," are homogeneous echo chambers where the only real challenge can come in a primary. And the primary challenge would be driven by the money coming from the Club for Growth and other right-wing groups, and amplified by the right-wing wind machine led by Rush Limbaugh. Governing in a system where a sizable number of lawmakers are immune from larger electoral and societal forces is a formidable challenge -- a challenge that will before long arise with issues well beyond the fiscal cliff, including guns and immigration.
So much for the House. The month of attacks in the Senate on U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice's presumed State Department nomination raise the question, "What is up with the Senate?" Six years of almost-nonstop filibusters were followed by presidential and Senate elections in which Republicans were pounded, and the first major prospective Cabinet nomination by the newly elected president was itself pounded into the ground.
The attacks on Rice were both extraordinary and ordinary. They were extraordinary in their intensity, hastiness (she had not even been nominated to be secretary of state), and focus -- on Benghazi, where, by any reasonable standard, she played no policy role whatsoever. What made them ordinary? It is not unusual for a president to have at least one high-profile nominee picked off by the Senate, sometimes simply as a way to take the president down a peg, sometimes because of the combativeness of the nominee, sometimes for ulterior motives. Think of Tony Lake, the highly qualified and cerebral national security advisor to President Bill Clinton who was shot down when he was nominated to be director of the CIA, or John Bolton, inserted by George W. Bush on a recess appointment as U.N. ambassador when the Senate refused to confirm him over his alleged extreme views and undiplomatic persona. Indeed, when Republican senators like Lindsey Graham (R-SC) were pressed about their over-the-top opposition to Rice, John Bolton's name was immediately cited.
Of course, there were other reasons for the opposition to Rice, including the calculation by many Republicans that if Barack Obama were to nominate John Kerry instead of Rice -- a scenario that has since come to pass -- it would open up an opportunity for Scott Brown to return to the Senate. And there were other reasons for Rice to withdraw her name from consideration, including the growing opposition from some on the left over her support for Rwanda's Paul Kagame. Nonetheless, the decision by some Republican Senators to raise the fight over this most-important post to a level of Defcon 1 was striking.
Now we are having déjà vu all over again, this time regarding the future secretary of defense. Once again, the name of a candidate preferred by the president has been floated but not officially nominated. And once again, the name -- former Republican Senator Chuck Hagel -- has been challenged. To be sure, the first intense opposition to Hagel came from outside groups, especially pro-Israel ones. But it did not take long before prominent senators like John Cornyn (R-TX) announced that they would not vote for Hagel.
It is extraordinary for a newly reelected president to face preliminary promises of major and bitter fights over his floated nominations to two top-tier Cabinet posts. But these challenges should not obscure the larger problem -- the Senate is no longer a place that allows presidents to have their own personnel confirmed.