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Ghosts of Fiscal Fights Past Say Don’t Surrender Ghosts of Fiscal Fights Past Say Don’t Surrender

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Ghosts of Fiscal Fights Past Say Don’t Surrender

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell addresses the media in August 2011 after voting on a bill to raise the debt ceiling.(Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)

With the government shuttered and leaders nudging closer to the possibility of a default on the nation's debt, lawmakers are recognizing the lessons of past fiscal fights. And one in particular—for better or worse—is rising above the others: Do not give in.

Congress flirted with fiscal ruin in 2011 before leaders agreed to the Budget Control Act and again on New Year's Day this year, when they averted the so-called fiscal cliff. In the aftermath of each, each side had a pelt it could claim.

But now, leaders and rank-and-file members are dug in, with the path toward resolution murkier than ever.


The thinking among Senate Democrats is that they'd set a dangerous political precedent if they were to bend to House Republicans. From the Democratic viewpoint, Republicans are watching to see how this fight plays out. Any concessions they extract from Democrats will only give them incentives to do so again in the future.

"If we were to give in while the government is shut, what do you think happens on the debt ceiling? What do you think happens when the CR has to be renewed?" Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., asked recently. "The hard Right says, see, by holding a gun to their heads, we got something we wanted. We'll up the ante this time."

But Republicans too have little reason to give in. Many conservatives ran on a platform dedicated in part to slashing Obamacare and claim a mandate to do just that. From their viewpoint, there's little incentive to defy the constituents who sent them to Washington in the first place.

"If you were one of these House guys in 2010, you ran, you beat a Democrat incumbent and said, 'I promise I'll go to Washington and repeal Obamacare,' " said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. "You expect them to back off?"

Democrats admit that Republicans in the House won their election. To do otherwise, of course, would be to ignore reality. But they quickly point out that their reason for not giving in that they won an election of their own—the presidential election.

"One of the big changes is that they had just won a huge election," Schumer said. "They lost a big election in 2012."

It's not just the election results, either, that explain the political brinkmanship. Republicans picked a fight over what is destined to become a key part of President Obama's legacy.

"President Obama views Obamacare as perhaps the most signal achievement of his administration and so therefore he is much more committed on this issue than probably he would be on almost any other issue," McCain said.

For lawmakers, the political fight in 2010 over Obamacare itself leaves bitter traces behind. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, remembers taking votes at 1 a.m. and 7 a.m. without the chance to offer amendments, and today's battle feels familiar.

"It is extremely gridlocked now. This is certainly one of the worst times," Collins said. "But in terms of the impact on the country, this is far worse. Far worse."

Asked what lessons he's learned from the 2011 and 2012 fiscal fights, Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., took the opportunity to throw a political stone.

"It takes leadership to end [these fights]," Levin said. "Speaker Boehner is not a strong leader, to put it mildly."

Levin, who's retiring after 34 years in the Senate, said what he's seeing in the current fight is unprecedented.

"I've never seen an inability of a leader, ultimately, to do what he thinks is the right thing to do, even though 5 or 10 percent of his caucus doesn't," Levin said. "I've never seen this."

Opinions like Levin's have been the norm with lawmakers, albeit with almost a mirror image coming from many Republicans.

Asked whether the lesson that all lawmakers had learned was really just that winning is the most important goal, Collins shook her head.

"That's what I'm trying to get away from," she said. "For us just to make partisan speeches on the Senate floor, blasting one another, doesn't do it."

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