By Paul Ryan
These are excerpts from Paul Ryan’s new book The Way Forward: Renewing the American Idea.
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When I got to the Speaker office, a handful of colleagues were already seated on a long table that ran the length of the room. I took a spot at one end with a couple of other chairmen. Boehner sat at the other end, slouched in his chair.
For weeks, John had been working around the clock, trying to head off a government shutdown. We were quickly coming to the point where there will be no turning back. As a last-ditch effort, he’d worked with House conservatives on a proposal that would have kept the government open while expressing opposition to Obamacare. Word of the idea had leaked and outside conservative groups had rebelled, creating consternation that rippled through the caucus.
Of course, there are time when even John needs to keeps his cards close to the vest. But you can generally tell how things are going by how long it takes him to light up a cigarette.
If it’s a good meeting he will go without one. If things are tense or frustrating, he’ll start about halfway through. On this night, he was already smoking when we got there.
“We tried to get the votes, but we are not even close. There’s no way this is going to pass”
Then Speaker leaned his head back into the chair and took a drag from his cigarette, pausing to ponder the moment.
“It looks like we’re are going into shutdown,” he said. “And I don’t know how long it’s going to last.”
Exhale. “Anybody have any ideas?”
As we got closer to the point of no return, I had a meeting with close colleague. He’s a true conservative from deep-red district and bell cow who can bring a lot of votes with him. Persuading him to vote for the stopgap spending bill was our last hope to avoiding what I believed will a calamity for our party and our country.
For weeks, a few conservatives in the Senate and some outside groups had been claiming that the House could unilaterally defund Obamacare by refusing to fund government. That’s not how the law works. Obamacare is an entitlement; its spending levels are not set by the annual appropriation process. The House can’t unilaterally defund it or eliminate it. And even if we managed to shut the government down, entitlements like Medicare, Social Security, and now Obamacare continue operating. To actually stop it, the House and the Senate have to pass a new bill. And even if we could get a Democrat led Senate to do that, president Obama will never sign it into law.
In short, the strategy our colleagues had been promoting was flawed from the beginning to end. It was a suicide mission. But a lot of members were afraid of what would happen if they didn’t jump off the cliff.
“The problem is that I can’t be seen as complicit in any effort that advances Obamacare, my colleague said, “ and no matter what the facts are, that is how it’s going to look with prominent Republicans out there saying the opposite.”
I kept explaining the facts and voicing my concerns that a needless shutdown would harm our credibility as a governing party. I was around when Newt Gingrich led the shutdown in 1995, I explained, I saw the damage it did. We couldn’t afford to take a hit like that again–not for a strategy that had no hope of advancing our core principles.
“Paul,“ he said, “ I’m happy to vote to fund the government, but we have to shutdown first. That way, we can prove what your are saying–that it doesn’t stop Obamacare. But if I vote to stop the shutdown beforehand, I could be cast of being in favor of Obamacare. I just can’t do that.”
“So let me get this straight,” I said. “ As long as we shut the government down, therefore proving that Obamacare still lives, then you’re okay with taking the same vote you won’t take now. You’ll vote to fund the government.
“Yes,” he replied, “that’s right.”
Wow, I thought. This can’t be the full measure of our party and our movement. If it is, we are dead, and the country is lost.
The shutdown wasn’t a disagreement over principles, or even policies. Rather, it is proof of what happens to a party it’s defined primarily by what it opposes, instead of by its ideas.