The Showdown to the Shutdown

March 7th, 2011



First, Congress has to pass a budget for the remainder of 2011. The Republican-controlled House has already passed a 2011 budget with $61 billion in spending cuts. It’s a non-starter in the Democratic Senate.

A few weeks later, Congress has to vote on whether to raise the debt limit. Or else put the full faith and credit of the United States at risk. Tea Party activists in Speaker John Boehner’s home district have already written Boehner a letter warning him that “raising the debt ceiling is in direct conflict with the platform that you and the Republicans in Congress ran on in November.”

Later this year, Congress will have to pass a budget for fiscal year 2012, which begins in October 2011. Third showdown, same issues.

It looks like a government shutdown is three times as likely as it was in 1995. What’s different about 2011? Mainly, the personalities. For one thing, John Boehner is not Newt Gingrich. For another thing, Barack Obama is not Bill Clinton. Gingrich and Clinton were warriors – free-wheeling, sometimes reckless, willing to lead the troops into battle. Boehner and Obama are presenting themselves as conciliators trying to restrain the troops from drifting into war.

But the situation is more threatening this time. There are 87 Republican freshmen in the House, a larger number than in 1995 (73). Most of them are aligned with the Tea Party, which is pressuring them not to make any deals with Democrats. About half of them have never held elected office before. Compromise is not part of their political DNA.

At the same time, there are fewer moderate Democrats in Congress. Moderate Democrats, who usually represent marginal districts, were swept away by the Republican tide last year. Just as moderate Republicans had been in 2006 and 2008. The Blue Dog Democratic caucus in the House lost almost half its members. Blue Dogs now number 25, or about 13 percent of all House Democrats. Things aren’t quite as bad for moderate Democrats in the Senate, mainly because only one third of Senate seats were at risk last year. Of 53 Democratic senators, about one third (18 senators) have signed on to the Moderate Democratic caucus.

National Journal’s vote ratings for the 2010 Congress showed Democratic and Republicans legislators more polarized than they have been since at least 1982, when the ratings began. Can Obama and Boehner control their restive forces?

In a recent Washington Post column, Ruth Marcus describes Obama as a “strangely passive” President. Referring to the 2011 budget, Marcus writes, “Obama seems more the passive bystander to negotiations between the House and Senate than the chief executive leading his party.”

Writing in Slate just after the 2010 midterm, William Saletan made pretty much the same point about Speaker-elect Boehner. On election night in November, Boehner said in his victory statement, “While our new majority will serve as your voice in the people’s House, we must remember it’s the President who sets the agenda for our government.” In Saletan’s view, “What’s surprising is that Boehner is sticking with this defensive posture even after winning power. He has been thrust into leadership but doesn’t want it.”

Contrast Newt Gingrich when he became Speaker in 1995. Ginrich behaved as if the reins of power had been handed over to him. He called the Republican majority a band of “revolutionaries” and declared, “If this is not a mandate to move in a particular direction, I would like somebody to explain to me what a mandate would look like.” A few months later, President Clinton felt compelled to plead at a press conference, “The President is still relevant.”

After the midterm election, Boehner told The New Yorker that his leadership team would have to convince House Republicans to support a budget deal with the Democrats rather than shut down the government. “This is going to be probably the first really big adult moment” for the new Republican majority, Boehner said. “You can underline ‘adult’.”

Asked whether he regarded the election victory as a mandate, Boehner’s reply was “No, no, noooooo. I have watched people in the past deal with that issue, whether it’s Speaker Gingrich or Speaker Pelosi or President Obama. We made a very conscious decision that we were not going to go down that path.” A freshman Republican Congressman told The New York Times last month, “I never hear John Boehner talking about a shutdown, and I never have.”

President Obama has been striking an equally conciliatory note. He invited House and Senate leaders to meet with Vice President Biden to work out a budget deal. Biden has years of experience with bipartisan negotiations in the Senate, most recently last December when he shepherded deals to extend the Bush tax cuts and ratify the New START treaty.

When President Obama addressed Democratic fundraisers in Miami last week, he did not feed the crowds fiery partisan rhetoric. “It’s still possible for us to tackle tough problems in a constructive way,” the President said. “We don’t have to be calling each other names. It doesn’t have to be an ideological battle.”

It’s not clear this time who would be blamed for a government shutdown. In a Washington Post poll, 36 percent said Republicans would be more to blame and 35 percent said the Obama Administration. Before the 1995 shutdown, voters said they would blame Newt Gingrich and the Republicans rather than President Clinton by 46 to 27 percent. Neither Boehner nor Obama wants to be the new Newt.

Both are positioning themselves as reasonable men, trying to hold back the excesses of their supporters. Obama is keeping a distance from the give-and-take of the negotiations. Last week, Boehner told The Wall Street Journal, “I was one of those wild-eyed, bomb-throwing freshmen. When they act like themselves, I’m very familiar with it.” It looks like a bargaining ploy. You’d better give me what I want or I can’t be responsible for what these crazy people do.

Everything depends on what political consultants call the “optics” of the situation: which side is seen as more intemperate and unreasonable in forcing a shutdown. Boehner and Obama are playing the “grown-up” card. But there are plenty of eager warriors in Congress. It’s not clear that Speaker Boehner and President Obama will be able to control them. Or if they really want to.