Congress shenanigans as shutdown looms

An American flag waves outside the US Capitol in Washington. Photo: 29 September 2013

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The Republicans have been accused of having Tea Party tantrums, they've been compared to people who want to burn the house down, suicide bombers, hostage takers and teenage drivers repeatedly taking a blind curve in the rain.

All these images of blackmail and mayhem come about because their strategy has brought the government to the brink of shutdown. What may happen at midnight on Monday is short of Armageddon, but it is not pretty.

But what brought us here says a lot about the state of American politics.

The shenanigans in Congress are more twisted than a sack of snakes, but the basics are easy to get straight.

Tea Party-backed members decided it would be a great idea to couple the vote to pay the government's bills with one to gut President Obama's healthcare legislation. Now it is linked to a similar idea that would delay "Obamacare" for a year.

They hoped that the Democrats would either blink or get the blame. It has never looked like a winning strategy.

A protester berates House Republicans in Washington. Photo: 29 September 2013 The US Capitol has become a scene of heated discussions - both inside and outside

President Obama's years in office are not so chockful of triumphs that he or the Democrats would be likely to disembowel his signature achievement - and particularly not three years after it became the law of the land. Not after winning a second term in an election in which "Obamacare" was a central issue.

'Will of the people'

The Republican leadership in the House are not stupid. They knew that. But they are trapped by their radicals.

Any backing away from confrontation could brand John Boehner an Obama loving apostate, and cost him his job. The same goes for his members who don't want to be deselected in primary elections.

This is not about ideology. The Republicans in the House are all conservatives, all hate "Obamacare" and think government spending is irresponsibly out of hand.

This is about strategy. Some Republicans have decided the House, and the House alone, embodies "the will of the people" - and the people hate "Obamacare".

They know it is so, not because of the rather indecisive opinion polls, but because the people in their district and on talk radio tell them so.

It is an argument between those who want to rush to the barricades and go down in a blaze of glory, heroes of the revolution to like-minded Tea Party types, and those who think it is a pointless charge but don't want to be labelled traitors and cowards.

They have different aims. Boehner has to lead his fractious party and ensure some semblance of running a functioning chamber.

Ted Cruz may realise that his ploy has little chance of success. He may realise that his party, not the Democrats, will get the blame.

But the donations have been flooding into anti-"Obamacare" campaign groups since he took his stand.

A recent poll has put him as the man Republican voters would most like to be their candidate. For those standing in next year's elections, in staunchly Republican areas, going with the Tea Party flow isn't likely to do them any harm.

There are few electoral areas where appealing to the centre makes any sense, but diving headlong over the brink may make a certain sense.

One former insider, thinking back to days gone by, has mused how President Ronald Reagan managed to do deals with Tip O'Neill because of their "joint loyalty to American self-government".

And that is the real trouble. A first-past-the-post system decrees - usually - that the winner takes all, and systems that produce coalition government force those who want power into agreement. But the American system relies on goodwill.

There's precious little of that in this town right now.

Mark Mardell Article written by Mark Mardell Mark Mardell North America editor

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