WASHINGTON — I almost shut down the government.
As I waited outside a meeting of the House Republican Caucus in the Capitol basement Monday afternoon, I put down my briefcase next to a flowerpot and walked around the corner to catch lawmakers as they exited. Minutes later, an aide to Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., came bounding down the hall toward me, calling out, “Is that your bag?”
The Capitol police had identified it as a suspicious package and isolated it. Had I not claimed the briefcase, they may well have evacuated the Republicans from their strategy session — and I would have been responsible for them failing to come up with a final plan to avert the shutdown.
As it turns out, the Republicans didn’t need help from me to blow things up.
Shortly after the briefcase incident, GOP lawmakers emerged touting their third list of demands for President Obama and the Democrats. Like the previous two, this one was a nonstarter, essentially requiring Obama to abandon the signature achievement of his presidency as the price for allowing the government to function.
Their original demand was that they would accept nothing less than the complete defunding of Obamacare.
Then they insisted that the health care law be delayed by a year — and that Obama accept a new oil pipeline, restrictions on medical malpractice lawsuits and contraceptive availability, and other poison pills.
Finally, they demanded a one-year delay of a linchpin of Obamacare, the individual mandate, and the end of health insurance subsidies for members of Congress, their staff members and the president’s political appointees.
The fact that Republicans kept scaling back their demands seemed to be confirmation that they were losing the battle for public opinion; a Washington Post-ABC News poll found that only one in four approve of their efforts. But did they really think it would help to make more obscure ultimatums?
Eliminate exchange subsidies for Schedule C federal employees or we’ll shut down the government! Yep, that’ll work.
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, didn’t sound terribly convinced himself when he announced the Republicans’ last stand to reporters.
“The president provided, uh, a one-year delay of the employer mandate,” he said. “He’s provided exceptions, uh, for unions, uh, and others. Uh, there’s even an exception for members of Congress. Uh, we believe that, uh, everyone should be treated fairly, and so we’re going to move, uh, here in the next several hours, uh, to take, uh, the — the Senate bill, ah, add to it, uh, a one-year delay of the individual mandate on the American people.”
Although they claimed confidence that they were doing the right thing, Republicans were in a state of agitation as they moved toward the midnight deadline.
Rep. James Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin was trying to flee the caucus meeting as CBS News’ Nancy Cordes asked him what would happen. “Well, we’ll see,” he replied.
“What do you think is going to happen?” she persisted.
“I don’t know,” he said, and when the questioning continued he snapped at the reporters: “I don’t like to do hallway interviews. You all know that.”
Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, was similarly irritable Monday afternoon when NBC’s Andrea Mitchell reminded him of opposition by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., to House Republicans’ shutdown strategy. “I don’t care what John McCain thinks!” he blurted out.
This was reminiscent of Rep. Darrell Issa’s explosion over the weekend, when Public Radio International’s Todd Zwillich asked him what he would do after the Senate rejected the House’s Obamacare gambits (as it later did). “How dare you presume a failure?” the California Republican said. “How dare you! How dare you!”
And they were worried about my briefcase?
Republican leaders marched the failure-in-waiting onto the House floor Monday night, where the level of debate was set by Rep. Jack Kingston of Georgia, who said of Obama: “Maybe the president of the United States can interrupt his negotiations with the Iranians and come talk to the Americans, i.e., Republican Americans.”
Is there any other kind?
Democrats howled about “extortion” and “hostage taking,” which Boehner seemed to confirm when he came to the floor and offered: “All the Senate has to do is say ‘yes,’ and the government is funded tomorrow.” It was the legislative equivalent of saying, “Give me the money and nobody gets hurt.”
A threatened rebellion by the small band of House GOP moderates failed to materialize, and, just three hours before midnight, House Republicans sent their politically explosive device to the Senate, which disposed of it like the suspicious package it was.
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter, @Milbank. (c) 2013, Washington Post Writers Group