But what very few people remember today is how Republicans actually held the upper hand during the shutdown — especially on the issue of appropriations. Let’s peruse some news reports from November 14–19, the days the government was closed.
On November 16, the Dallas Morning News published an article remarking that “[Clinton chief of staff Leon] Panetta’s remarks reflected Democratic discomfort about being forced to vote against a seven-year time frame for eliminating the deficit.” On the same day, the New York Times reported that “privately, Congressional Democrats and White House aides acknowledged that the pressure to pass a temporary spending measure would not abate and that it could quickly become harder to keep Democrats from voting against such a measure simply because it included a promise to balance the budget in seven years.”
Indeed, when the Senate approved a temporary spending bill on November 16, 48 of the 51 senators who crossed party lines were Democrats. The next day, the Washington Post
reported “signs” that “congressional Democrats are becoming uneasy with Clinton’s opposition to a seven-year route to a balanced budget. In the past 48 hours they have started to warn the White House that enough Democrats could abandon their support over the issue that Clinton could lose a veto fight, increasing the urgency for a compromise.” Things began to look worse for the Democrats on November 18; according to a Washington Post
Although nationwide surveys this week have indicated more public support for the White House position than that of the Republicans, that support appeared to be slipping by yesterday morning as the shutdown continued. . . . The pressure was compounded when nearly 80 House members — more than half of them Democrats — by late afternoon had signed a letter . . . urging passage of a new continuing resolution and instructing the president to work with Congress to develop a seven-year balanced budget “without preconditions.”
And on November 19, the New York Times reported that
the White House faced increasing pressure from many moderate and conservative Democrats in Congress who were reluctant to vote against a stopgap spending measure solely on the grounds that it included the goal of balancing the budget in seven years. The consensus on Capitol Hill was that Mr. Clinton would have had a hard time sustaining a veto if Democrats were given another chance to vote on such a proviso, since the last one passed in the House just six-votes short of the two-third margin needed to override a Presidential veto.
On November 20, the Times further explained:
White House aides, led by Vice President Al Gore, spent an anxious night of nose counting, worried that support for the President’s position was slipping away. Though public opinion polls continued throughout the weekend to show more Americans blamed Congress than the President for the shutdown, the White House fretted that the Republicans were successfully framing the debate — in the very way Mr. Clinton has sought to avoid for months — as whether the budget should be balanced, not how.
The next day, a Times editorial echoed this analysis in explaining why “President Clinton swallowed hard over the weeked before agreeing to the Republicans’ key budget demand — a balanced budget within seven years according to the Congressional Budget Office.”
The GOP’s relative success was especially impressive considering they had to deal with two political handicaps: Newt Gingrich’s complaining about how he was treated on Air Force One (a widely reported controversy at the time) and the never-popular proposal to require seniors to pay higher premiums for their Medicare benefits.