Last night's meltdown in the House -- where the Republican rank and file cut the legs out from its own leadership and indicated an unwillingness to compromise its orthodoxy even to the slightest degree -- may mark a dramatic turn in American politics.
For decades, the House has been almost exclusively a majoritarian body. Due to the filibuster rule and the Senate's larger, more diverse electoral districts - the Senate has always been more centrist and bipartisan. The legislative process consisted of the House passing one party's favored approach on a given issue. The Senate would stitch together a bipartisan super-majority (at least on most issues). And then the political fight would be whether the final legislation ended up closer to where one body began or the other - and how the President's interests would be accommodated in the final product.
The schism in the GOP, combined with the automatic massive tax hikes and spending cuts scheduled to start taking effect on January 1, could break this mold -- maybe in a significant and permanent way. The House's action last night demonstrates that there may be no overlap in the Venn diagrams of what the House majority will support and what can both pass the Senate and gain President Obama's signature. If this is the case - and I suspect that it is -- then the only path that avoids fiscal calamity is to pass a bipartisan bill in the Senate and then pass that bill with a bipartisan coalition in the House, consisting of the Republicans who are willing to follow Speaker Boehner's leadership and whichever Democrats President Obama can arm twist and cajole into supporting some cuts to entitlement programs.
The obstacle to this occurring is the Speaker. Clearly, after last night, if he were to bring to the House floor anything nearing the compromise he and President Obama were close to completing, he would lose support of a majority of House Republicans and lose his Speakership when the new Congress reconvenes on January 3.
Now, perhaps in the interests of the nation, Boehner will take this statesman-like step. But there is another possibility. Perhaps this is a fantasy - but what if Democrats promise to deliver as many votes as Boehner needs to reach a majority vote for Speaker? In this way, he would be empowered to cut bipartisan deals with the President and totally ignore his right flank. Since Democrats would have to supply votes to pass these deals, Nancy Pelosi would gain a critical seat at the bargaining table instead off being shut out and powerless as she is now. Deals could be done on tax reform, entitlement reform, improvements to Obama-care, and immigration. A strong Senate minority and Boehner as Speaker would ensure that there would be a Republican stamp on all this legislation -- but it would be a mainstream Republican influence, not the radicalism that is represented by the current House Republican majority.
Trying times as these demand creative solutions. The country is rightfully fed up with the dysfunction of our current government. Perhaps the conservative rebellion from its leadership last night will push our leaders to seek a new, better way of doing business.