As shopworn political metaphors go, “war” may be among the most clichéd and misleading. But that doesn’t mean there haven’t been epic battles with enduring, indelible scars embedded into the psyches of the losers. Such is the case with Republicans and the 1995 budget shutdown with President Clinton.
The confrontation led to two suspensions of government services totaling 26 days, from November 1995 to January 1996. Republicans won many policy points (a balanced budget eventually came about), but they took a political drubbing so severe that GOP veterans practically tremble at the mention of the showdown. And with the GOP poised to retake one or both chambers of Congress, positioning them to make the same mistake—they are planning carefully to avoid a repeat.
Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., was there in 1995 and watched the fight as a legislative aide on the Budget Committee to then-Rep. Sam Brownback of Kansas, one of the 1994 Gingrich revolutionaries. Ryan, who will chair the Budget Committee if Republicans win back the majority, called shutdowns “a distraction.” “There are a lot of folks around the country who just want us to go after the president every step of the way, who believe we have to fight, fight, fight,” Ryan said. “There is a case for brinksmanship in some cases, but [a shutdown] ends up being a big distraction.”
Even so, Ryan says he hasn’t settled on a strategy, though he is likely to be a key player in any spending tug-of-war with President Obama. “I’m not going to say what our shutdown strategy should or should not be,” Ryan said.
But some House Republican leaders, still afflicted by a kind of post-traumatic shutdown disorder, have already waved the white flag. “I don’t think America is look for a shutdown situation,” said Minority Whip Eric Cantor. “It sends the wrong signal that there aren’t adults in charge in Washington. We are going to hold the president and his administration accountable [for its previous spending], but I’m not interested in shutting things down just to shut them down.”
What’s more, Rep. Jeb Hensarling of Texas has already drafted legislation to avoid a government shutdown; leaders say they will bring it to a floor vote soon as part of a larger budget-process reform bill. The law provides for an automatic continuing resolution to fund all government services at the previous year’s levels if by the end of the fiscal year Congress hasn’t approved new spending levels for any discretionary program.
Yet that bill doesn’t bridge the gap between Republicans’ desires to extend all of the current Bush tax cuts and live up to the “Pledge to America” promise to reduce nondefense, nonveterans discretionary spending by as much as $100 billion next year. Obama says he’s willing to extend all the tax cuts except those for the wealthiest taxpayers. But the White House—despite some talk this week from Vice President Joe Biden about a possible tax deal—appears steadfast in demands for offsets to cover the projected lost revenue ($700 billion over 10 years, according to the Office of Management and Budget).
How can House Republicans and their Senate colleagues, who appear unlikely to win their own majority, move forward with spending cuts this deep and still meet Obama’s demand to find additional cost savings to preserve all current Bush tax cuts and avoid a government shutdown?
Ryan is unsure, but he wants to avoid the kind of struggle that could, as the 1995 confrontation did, put Republicans on the defensive. “This will ultimately get settled in the 2012 election,” Ryan said. “We’re in a situation where political realignment is going on in America. And [Republicans] don’t want to give progressives an opportunity to win this thing. We have to make sure we don’t scare voters back into the progressives’ arms.”
But what about the aggressive, fire-breathing incoming freshmen inspired by tea party calls to reject compromise and cut deeply into the federal budget? One of the Republicans closest to this cadre of future lawmakers, Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California, tells National Journal that a shutdown is neither inevitable nor preferred. “People across the country don’t want to see the government shut down,” McCarthy said. “But they don’t want trillions of dollars of debt, either.”
If Republicans can actually move the spending and tax cuts through both chambers (by no means certain) and get them to Obama’s desk, the scenario most likely to play out isn’t a shutdown but a sort of rolling acquiescence to keep the government operating at last year’s funding levels. If Obama agrees (another big if), Republicans will still have to negotiate a settlement—and there’s no playbook for that—while reducing discretionary spending under the previous year’s levels. That approach won’t come close to the $100 billion in savings envisioned by the “pledge,” and it may antagonize tea party-inspired conservatives.
Might compromise along those lines elicit something different and equally severe, such as post-traumatic tea party backlash syndrome? Ryan can’t answer that question either. He concedes that intraparty tussles could complicate any dealings with Obama on spending and taxes. “We’ve got some real conservatives coming here,” Ryan said. “Some of these guys are going to make me look like Mike Castle.”
This article appears in the October 27, 2010, edition of National Journal Magazine.