There are two ways people seem to be viewing the series of continuing resolutions being passed by Congress pending a final agreement on fiscal 2011 funding: The glass is either half full or half empty.
Another short-term CR will need to be passed before the current one expires on Friday, and it is highly likely it will closely resemble the three-week version House Republicans unveiled last Friday. This, conceivably, will give Congress enough time to finalize a longer-term one that will run through September 30.
The glass-half-empty school of thought believes that the need to pass CR after CR is the result of each side having irreconcilable differences—and that this also bodes ill for Congress being able to raise the debt ceiling sometime soon. They see each new CR as an acknowledgement of failure—like a marriage going through an endless stream of “trial separations.”
The glass-half-full view is that it is a good sign that Congress is able to pass these measures, as fleeting as they might seem. It means that both parties want to get something done, no one wants a government shutdown, and everyone is operating in good faith. Those with this view believe that reasonable people on each side will prevail and that in any negotiation over numbers, there is a place in the middle that both sides will tolerate.
My view is much closer to the latter group. If members of Congress were willing to take the risk of shutting the government down, they would likely be doing it now by opposing the CRs.
It would be easy to take the position that we aren’t going to “kick the can down the road” anymore, and to force a showdown. The business of passing repeated CRs can be easily caricatured, and there are plenty of those on the left and right who have experience taking cheap and shameless shots.
Polls show that neither party can confidently say they would escape blame for a government shutdown. Republicans still carry the burden of blame for the government shutdowns in the 1990s and seem determined not to make that mistake again. To listen to them, one gets the clear impression that they might make new mistakes, but not that one.
While Republicans and certainly tea partiers want to make dramatic spending cuts, there are relatively few willing to risk a government shutdown, and they aren’t in key leadership positions.
Democrats must face the reality that it has been years since they have won any messaging fight. The stimulus, climate change, and health care debates were unmitigated disasters. Given recent history, there is no rational reason for Democrats to be confident that they would win this fight.
While House Democrats seem to have little to lose, their only chances of regaining a House majority in 2012 are if Republicans self-destruct on the spending fight or if the GOP foolishly chooses a politically toxic presidential nominee next year.
Doubters should note that even when Presidents Nixon and Reagan were winning landslide reelections, their House coattails extended only so far, in both cases resulting in GOP pickups that just cracked double digits.
Senate Democrats are defending a precarious majority. They have 23 seats up next year, compared to just 10 for Republicans. There’s not much relief for Democrats in 2014, when they will have 20 seats up compared to just 13 for the GOP. There are plenty of Democratic senators, some in swing or Republican states, with a whole lot to lose if their side seems overly intransigent.
And while some Democrats accept that they will probably lose their majority next year, individual senators are not as willing to accept defeat and will be looking out for their own best interests.
Similarly, President Obama, chastened by the thud of last year’s midterm election results, is busily positioning himself as the pragmatic one—none dare call it triangulation—searching for a middle ground that addresses the deficit without laying waste to critical programs.
With the key players on each side neither arrogant nor foolish enough to go to the brink, and as messy as the process will likely be, my hunch is that there will either be no shutdown or one that’s too short to be really noticeable to the average American.
The simple fact is that it will be independent voters who will ultimately stand in judgment of how each side behaves. By their nature, independents are not ideological and are extremely distrustful of both parties. If they weren’t, they wouldn’t be independents.
So while liberals and Democrats have passion and conservatives and Republicans have passion, moderates and independents have lives. They didn’t go to tea party rallies in 2009 and 2010, nor did they march on state capitols in Wisconsin and Ohio.
They don’t live and breathe politics, and they have little tolerance for the partisan towel-snapping in Washington. They want government to function and view the actions of politicians with a great deal of skepticism.
A party that is seen as trying to dispassionately work toward a reasonable solution will do a lot better than one that seems belligerent and intolerant. The party that understands the views of its base but is equally concerned with the views of independents will be well served.
This article appears in the March 15, 2011, edition of National Journal Daily.