Republican Senator on GOP Shutdown Strategy: ‘Wow. Is That the Best You Can Do?’

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Sen. Mike Johanns waits for the beginning of a news conference November 30, 2011 on Capitol Hill.
National Journal
Michael Catalini
Oct. 7, 2013, 1:51 p.m.

Sen. Mike Jo­hanns, the soft-spoken Neb­raskan, walks from the Rus­sell Build­ing along the con­crete un­der­ground path to the Cap­it­ol when he’s needed on the floor for a vote. He’s not one to get taken for a ride — not on the Sen­ate sub­way or by con­ser­vat­ive col­leagues whose strategy he views with skep­ti­cism. Jo­hanns, the former Neb­raska gov­ernor and Ag­ri­cul­ture sec­ret­ary un­der George W. Bush, has held back snip­ing at his Re­pub­lic­an col­leagues in the in­tern­al GOP de­bate over wheth­er to press Demo­crats for con­ces­sions on Obama­care in re­turn for fund­ing the gov­ern­ment.

But his po­lite man­ner has not stopped him from cri­tiquing the mer­its of the plan.

Jo­hanns de­cided earli­er this year he wouldn’t seek reelec­tion in 2014, a de­cision that means he is not glan­cing over his shoulder at at­tacks from the right or the left. That also means there’s little down­side to speak­ing his mind about what’s hap­pen­ing in Con­gress.

When the ar­chi­tects of the GOP strategy, in­clud­ing Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Mike Lee of Utah, ex­plained the path to vic­tory, Jo­hanns quickly real­ized what the rest of Wash­ing­ton soon would as well: The plan re­quires the pres­id­ent and Demo­crats to back off their sig­na­ture le­gis­la­tion. It was a non­starter.

“If that’s your strategy? Wow,” he said. “Is that the best you can do? Like I said, I didn’t get it.”

A cer­tain level of polit­ic­al prag­mat­ism could have gone a long way in this case, the think­ing goes, and Re­pub­lic­ans could have se­cured more fisc­al con­ces­sions had they steered clear of try­ing to short-cir­cuit the Af­ford­able Care Act.

“My ad­vice, when I do speak up, is think about what you’re fight­ing for and make sure the strategy you’ve chosen ac­tu­ally gets you to a res­ult. I didn’t see how this got to a res­ult. I could nev­er un­der­stand de­fund­ing Obama­care as the strategy for the con­tinu­ing res­ol­u­tion,” Jo­hanns said.

Part of the prob­lem with the strategy is that Sen­ate Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Harry Re­id, D-Nev., whose Sen­ate Demo­crats have held firm, in­sists that the House vote on the up­per cham­ber’s so-called “clean” con­tinu­ing res­ol­u­tion.

Now, Re­pub­lic­ans in the House and Sen­ate aim to dis­cred­it Re­id by ty­ing him to the gov­ern­ment shut­down in the same way he has tried to taint the GOP. The prob­lem with that is the dif­fi­culty in pier­cing Re­id’s ar­mor. He doesn’t care about the in­sults, in oth­er words.

“I don’t think he’s es­pe­cially bothered by some­body say­ing this, that, or the oth­er thing,” Jo­hanns said. “He’s been around a lot of years and fought a lot of fights.”

The big­ger is­sue is that fo­cus­ing on Obama­care takes away from a dis­cip­lined and uni­fied fo­cus on fisc­al is­sues, such as en­for­cing the Budget Con­trol Act caps, which Demo­crats op­pose.

“We some­how got off on a cul-de-sac,” Jo­hanns said.

Jo­hanns lends his cri­ti­cism to a chor­us of oth­er Sen­ate Re­pub­lic­ans, in­clud­ing Sens. Bob Cork­er of Ten­ness­ee, who char­ac­ter­ized the Cruz ap­proach as the “box-canyon” strategy, and Tom Coburn of Ok­lahoma, who said he thinks the GOP will fold over the shut­down.

The path out of that canyon, to use Cork­er’s meta­phor, is easy, ac­cord­ing to the Re­pub­lic­an skep­tics in the Sen­ate. But it’s also easi­er said than done, with both the White House and Re­id’s Demo­crat­ic Caucus un­will­ing to move off their po­s­i­tions.

“I think there’s just a point where both sides have to agree that con­tinu­ing to fight has no re­deem­ing fea­tures to it, that the down­side of set­tling beats the beat­ing that you’re tak­ing,” Jo­hanns said. “I think when both sides reach that con­clu­sion, then it will be re­solved.”

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