Late Tuesday night, House Republicans abruptly decided that nearly derailing the bipartisan fiscal-cliff deal was not enough of a public-relations disaster. Surely, they reasoned, there was a way they could look worse in this whole process. And so, at the last minute, they declined to consider the bill passed by the Senate to deliver billions in disaster relief to victims of Hurricane Sandy.
A few defended the decision on philosophical grounds, saying they didn't want to pass a spending bill after voting for a historic set of tax increases, and charging that the bill was stuffed with pork-barrel spending unrelated to the storm that devastated the mid-Atlantic coast in October.
But what those responsible for stopping the bill may have failed to consider is that some of the Republican Party's noisiest and most irascible figures hail from the Sandy-affected states. Rep. Pete King, the unpredictable Republican from Long Island, has spent the past 24 hours on an outraged media tour against his own party. And on Wednesday afternoon, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie convened a press conference to comment on the matter.
"Angry Chris Christie holds press conference" is a must-see under most circumstances, and this one did not disappoint. "There's only one group to blame for the continued suffering of these innocent victims -- the House majority and their speaker, John Boehner," Christie raged.
Christie called the spectacle "disappointing and disgusting to watch." He said he'd received assurances the bill was on track Tuesday, only to find out around 11 p.m. that it was not. He said he'd called Boehner four times after 11:20 p.m. Tuesday but received no response. He blamed "palace intrigue" among the Republican leadership, specifically the long-simmering power struggle between Boehner and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor -- but he singled out Boehner as the responsible party, saying he believed Cantor had been trying to get the bill passed. "This was the speaker's decision -- his alone," Christie said.
The bickering and politicking on display in the Sandy debacle, Christie said, are why Americans can't stand Congress. "I have always put the people of New Jersey and my oath ahead of petty personal politics," he said. "Last night, the House of Representatives failed that most basic test of public service, and they did so with callous indifference to the suffering of the people of my state." And in case anyone got the impression this was a pox-on-both-their-houses broadside aimed equally at both Democrats and Republicans, Christie clarified: "Last night, my party was responsible for this."
As with Christie's buddy act with President Obama during Sandy -- which sent his approval rating soaring to 72 percent even as it drove to distraction the Mitt Romney presidential campaign -- Christie's emotional diatribe seemed both utterly authentic and politically brilliant. There's basically zero political downside in campaigning against Congress, and particularly the House GOP, right now: As of a couple of weeks ago, before the current debacle, just 25 percent of Americans approved of congressional Republicans' performance, while 70 percent disapproved. (For congressional Democrats, it was 39 percent approval, 56 percent disapproval.) Ezra Klein speculates that House Republicans are now so poorly regarded that the public may blame them even for future congressional breakdowns that aren't their fault. Taking fire from one of their own isn't going to help, and could have more dire consequences: Christie, who keynoted the GOP convention and has been a prolific party fundraiser, said the House GOP wouldn't be getting any more help from him. Asked if he'd campaign against members of Congress he blamed for the bill's failure, he said, "We'll see. Primaries are an ugly thing."
The outpouring of criticism got results: Boehner, in a statement issued jointly with Cantor, announced later Wednesday that the House would vote Friday on flood-insurance funding and January 15 on further relief for Sandy victims.
Christie is up for reelection this year in his very blue home state, and by turning his legendary temper on the GOP, he's helped turned his image from partisan ball-buster to nobly apolitical, equal-opportunity ball-buster. Has he damaged his stock as a Republican presidential candidate by going after his own party? Possibly. But it's hard these days to find even Republicans who will defend what's been going on in the House. (I've been trying.) Moderates and even conservatives in the party establishment have been quietly dying for a powerful voice to tell off the more unruly elements of the caucus and bring them into line. If even a party star like Chris Christie doesn't have the credibility to do that, Republicans may be in even more trouble than they thought.