Political Brinksmanship Games

Terry Schwadron
5 min readDec 7, 2023


Terry H. Schwadron

Dec. 7, 2023

We shouldn’t believe it until we see the votes, but signals were airing this week that House Republicans who have held out for months about any spending agreement that would keep the government functioning are easing up. The delayed deadline is next month.

Compromises reported by TheHill.com, backed by quotes from named hardline conservatives, suggest that lawmakers are moving to adopt the very terms that were offered previously by former Speaker Kevin McCarthy and the White House.

If it turns out to be a true reading, it’s at once a relief to learn that government services will not face unnecessary interruption and confirmation that the political games played in Washington are increasingly a waste of our serious time. The previous budget agreement put some limits on growing spending but were achievable without wholesale elimination of programs — in other words, it’s a rational compromise to differing visions of what it should cost to run a federal government.

Over months, House Republicans repeatedly clashed with one another and with Senate counterparts and Democrats over spending, even dumping McCarthy as speaker (he is now leaving Congress altogether), as right-wing Freedom Caucus members insisted on aggressive spending cuts. Now, TheHill.com says “some in the right flank are letting up on their push for significantly lower funding levels, which they acknowledge is no longer achievable.”

Remaining spending bills among the group of 12 required address non-defense programs, bills calling for the most about of political posturing over cultural issues from abortion to housing, health, education, and social service entitlement programs.

We should just add this one to the ever-lengthening list of things over which we have no control but leave to lawmakers to resolve rationally.

Facing Defeat on Aid to Ukraine, Israel

None of these government spending bills address the real and dangerous questions around providing sustaining military and humanitarian aid to Israel and Gaza, to Ukraine, and to Taiwan. Those are in a supplemental bill that Joe Biden is begging Congress to consider before Christmas, but that looks for the moment to be circling the congressional drain with the Senate failing to get 60 votes to advance it yesterday.

The same House Republican right wing insists that these questions are important, but lag behind a demand that as a price, the White House and Democrats bow to their demands for harsher limits on in immigration with regulations that harken back (or possibly ahead) to the Donald Trump years.

The news this week is that after three weeks of bipartisan negotiations among Senate and House members, the talks to do so have broken up. As characterized by both parties, the dispute is whether the “negotiations” were about finding compromise or whether it was simply a take-it-or-leave-it price for getting a straight vote on the aid package.

It has gotten so bad that a dozen Republicans walked out on a classified Senate briefing Tuesday because the briefing addressed only Ukraine’s current situation and not the border — which clearly would have involved a different set of briefers. That and the angry comments from Republicans that followed indicated that a necessary preliminary vote to even consider the military aid would fail in yesterday’s vote.

Biden and the most foreign-policy oriented lawmakers in Congress have been active in pushing for immediate adoption of the military aid in the name of national security and international promises. Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, addressed senators directly by video connection to plead for more weapons and financial help, along with a renewed plea from Joe Biden and multiple repeated reports and commentary from retired military commentators and news observers that further delays in providing aid will result in strengthening Russia’s hand in having invaded Ukraine. Biden offered to “compromise” about border policies, but not to be handed an ultimatum.

The calls from Israel for more financial support for weaponry and for humanitarian aid to a besieged Gaza were non-stop. The only question for the United States seemed to be whether to tie aid payments to conditions on Israel to be more aggressive in avoiding civilian casualties.

Even House Republicans are eager to advance military aid to Taiwan to make any potential takeover by China much more difficult.

Politics or Substance?

Under the practices of brinksmanship, the fate of the military and humanitarian aid may well waver before becoming true as well. So much seems to depend on saving political face rather than any perception of need or policy imperative.

Those same House Republicans — who now will be down to a miniscule majority even if they vote uniformly — see the need for a political win on the border as essential — and want the Senate and White House to swallow whole-hog the contents of House bill 2 passed earlier this year that all but suspends the asylum program — some of which contravenes existing law — and reinstates court-challenged programs to require migrants to remain in Mexico until scheduled asylum requests could be heard.

Strip away some of those Republican comments and you hear that more money to Ukraine just won’t sell to voters back home who don’t want money going to foreign adventures. This is Ukraine as an election issue, not as a strategic question.

The same is true for this broad-brush swipe at halting migrants.

All of which brings us back to the initial question. Which of these disputes is real and which are just for the political show? Which are intended towards providing actual solutions and which are emotion-based hissy fits that simply allow a minority wing within the split House to have its day in the sun?

Part of the public trust of government question that gets so much air play on cable television concerns hoodwinking the American public into buying slogans rather than substance in such issues. Is this a real philosophical split that requires that we weigh in as a nation or is this just another excuse for the inter-party jostling that always seems to take over in Washington? After all, multiple state elections show that a majority favor gun control laws and abortion rights, but the vocal right wing continues to press for their singular point of view in these matters.

Immigration problems are serious and certainly should be solved in a way that makes systems involving legal and illegal border crossings more orderly and aligned with reality. But doing so as a policy lever for funding our promised international commitments seems an abuse of the system.

Were there not serious issues at hand, the politics are simply hard to take.

Fans of governmental frustration, don’t panic. Just in case we solve either military aid or immigration, we’ll still have Hunter Biden and his sordid life to kick around.