Despite what you might read in the Beltway press, let’s be crystal clear about this: The Republicans blinked.
On Tuesday, congressional Republicans began threatening to shut down the federal government if Democrats didn’t buckle under and allow them to ram through Donald Trump’s nomination of retired Marine Corps General James Mattis as secretary of defense. On Wednesday, though, the GOP backed down, meaning Mattis’ appointment won’t sail through the way they wanted—and that the government’s doors will stay open.
But much of the D.C. media that covers this kind of thing has had a hard time grasping how, precisely, events have played out, so here’s a timeline:
- Last Thursday, Trump said he’d tap Mattis as his defense secretary. But there’s a big problem with this proposal: A 70-year-old federal law forbids anyone who has served on active duty in the armed forces in the last seven years from holding a senior defense post. Mattis only retired three years ago, so he’s not eligible.
- This longstanding law exists to preserve the doctrine of civilian control over the military, a bedrock principle of democracy: Only elected officials, not generals, should make decisions about how to use our armed forces, and that means keeping a healthy separation between active duty service and civilian life. So for Mattis to serve as secretary, both houses of Congress would have to pass a special amendment to that law.
- Republicans, of course, are only too willing to undermine civilian control of the military, but Democrats are not. The same day Trump rolled out his Mattis pick, New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand announced that she’d filibuster any effort to pass a special amendment for Mattis.
- That means Republicans would need 60 votes in the Senate in order for Trump’s nomination to succeed, but they’ll only hold 52 Senate seats next year, so they’d need the support of at least eight Democrats, assuming the GOP sticks together. (Note: While cabinet nominations cannot be filibustered and thus only require 50 votes, the special amendment Mattis would need can indeed be filibustered.)
- This week, congressional Republicans then prepared to throw one of their patented—and dangerous—tantrums, saying they’d attach this special Mattis amendment to a must-pass spending bill that would keep the federal government operating past Friday. In other words, if they didn’t get their way on Mattis, they’d shut down the government.
- Democrats told Republicans to get fucked.
In response, on Tuesday night, Republicans caved.
They did not attach the Mattis amendment to the spending bill. Instead, the only thing the bill now contains is some language that would shorten the time period for considering this amendment to five days. That scarcely matters, because the amendment can still be filibustered when it comes up for consideration next year, and you better believe it will be filibustered.
Yet the headline writers at Politico somehow think that Democrats “waved the white flag.” Completely wrong. It was Republicans who surrendered. Remember the last government shutdown, three years ago? Yeah, that didn’t work out so well for the GOP, and those cowards know it. If they were so confident they had a winning issue here, then why didn’t they stick to their guns, include the special amendment in the funding bill, and then make their case to the American people when the government closed down this weekend?
It’s because they know it’s a loser, which is why we won this round. And we’ll be back in January to fight some more.