The Campaign Spot

When Will the Shutdown Talk Get Shut Down?

From the midweek edition of the Morning Jolt:

When Will the Shutdown Talk Get Shut Down?

The issue with this threatened government shutdown is the same as all the preceding ones: If the federal government is shut down, and public opinion turns against Republicans . . . then what? What’s Plan B?

Yes, I know that ideally, given a choice between defunding Obamacare and a government shutdown, President Obama would fold and accept defunding in order to keep the government open. But let’s recognize that no president will ever defund legislation named after himself.

Karl Rove, discussing this idea on Sean Hannity, notes that the last government shutdown effectively ended the Gingrich Revolution. (Republicans kept control of the House through 2006, but one could argue that their desire and drive to cut spending died pretty quickly after 1995.)

“This time around when the government runs out of money on September 30, it runs out of money for all the discretionary parts of the government. So the military isn’t going to get paid, FBI agents are not going to get paid. Border patrol people aren’t going to get paid. Anything that requires discretionary outlays is not going to get paid.” He predicts a slew of heart-rending stories about military families struggling, necessary medical procedures not being performed, and so on.

Sen. Mike Lee insists that it’s a false choice; that the Republicans would be passing a budget to fund everything except Obamacare, and it would force Senate Democrats to say that they would rather shut down the government than give up Obamacare. Rove doubts that the Senate Democrats will cave; he predicts they’ll just amend the legislation to fund everything, including Obamacare, and then send it back to the House and dare Republicans to reject that.

“You mean to suggest that we’re not going to fight and we shouldn’t fight just for the reason we’re going to get blamed for it?” Lee said. “We’re afraid that the other side won’t cave, so we have to? We cave and we cave and we cave. And we get Obamacare and we get new entitlement programs that never go away. This is how we get into trouble.”

There’s an oft-cited, apparently apocryphal anecdote, mentioned in The Hunt for Red October, of Hernan Cortez burning his ships after reaching the New World, in order to ensure his men would be highly motivated. A certain portion of the GOP grassroots wants that kind of all-or-nothing brinksmanship, to put all of their remaining chips into the middle of the table and bet them all on winning one fight. You win, you win big — i.e., President Obama, capitulating in humiliation, signing legislation to repeal his signature domestic-policy achievement. The problem is that if you lose, you lose big.

Lee contends that Rove’s scenario amounts to “the other side is going to try to blame something bad on us.” Except that a government shutdown will garner coverage that makes the Fiscal Cliff look like a handicapped ramp. It will be like the sequester doomsday talk, except that the doomsday talk will be largely right, at least in the short term. The consequences of a government shutdown would be felt immediately and widespread.

For what it’s worth, Senator Lee is completely, totally convinced that if the government shuts down, Republicans will win the messaging fight. I’d rather live in a world where he’s right. But I don’t think he’s right.

This may be moot, as Bob Costa is about as plugged into the House Republicans as any man alive, and his sources say buckets of cold water are being tossed onto this idea:

My cloakroom sources tell me they’re now confident that House Republicans will not tread into a shutdown battle with the Obama White House. GOP firebrands may threaten a shutdown and theatrically insist it remains an option, but the party’s private appetite for one, even among the right flank, is dissipating. “The electorate expects Congress to govern,” explains pollster David Winston, a longtime adviser to the House leadership. “House Republicans are going to offer their health-care alternatives within that process.”

The House leadership’s aversion to the tea-party plan is driven not only by strategy but also by the fear that having a debate on tactics would devolve into a Republican civil war. Boehner and Cantor, in conversations with fellow members, have reportedly warned that a shutdown would almost undoubtedly end in intraparty strife, owing to the Senate’s Democratic majority. To pass a vote on defunding Obamacare, Republicans would need 14 Senate Democrats to join them, and if Democrats declined, all blame, the thinking goes, would fall back on the House GOP for refusing to pass legislation to fund federal services. In all likelihood, Republicans would then be pressured to rush through a continuing resolution, only to get hit with recriminations and chaos in the wake of a shutdown.

But Conn Carroll points out that congressional Republicans’ leverage on another spending fight is based upon the same basic principle as Lee’s Obamacare gambit: Make some concessions or we won’t fund anything:

Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, is also on record threatening not to raise the debt limit unless Obama agrees to dollar-for-dollar spending cuts. On July 24, Boehner said, “We’re not going to raise the debt ceiling without real cuts in spending. It’s as simple as that.” “I believe the so-called Boehner Rule is the right formula for getting that done,” he added, referring to his rule matching new debt authority with spending cuts.

House Republicans can’t announce they are willing to surrender on Obamacare funding in the CR because they are afraid they will be blamed for a government shutdown, and then turn right around and threaten not to raise the debt limit unless Obama agrees to more spending cuts. There is no reason anyone should take them seriously.

If anything, a government shutdown is much safer ground to fight on. Hitting the debt limit would trigger far harsher consequences than a government shutdown.

If Republicans in Washington don’t want to fight Obamacare through the CR, that’s fine. But they shouldn’t then pretend that Obama and the Democrats should take their debt limit threats seriously at all.


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