How to Spin a Government Shutdown

It will be a) Democrats’ fault; b) not that bad; or c) quickly forgotten.

CHICAGO, IL - MARCH 25: Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL) questions a group of nuclear experts at a public forum on the safety of Illinois nuclear power plants on March 25, 2011 in Chicago, Illinois. Kirk along with fellow Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) called the forum with the hope of finding if any lessons from the nuclear crisis in Japan can be applied to Illinois' six nuclear plants. Illinois has more nuclear reactors than any other state with a total of 11 reactors in its six plants, all owned by the Excelon Corporation. (Photo by Brian Kersey/Getty Images)
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Sarah Mimms
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Sarah Mimms
Feb. 16, 2015, 3 p.m.

Con­gress has packed its bags and gone home for the week, leav­ing law­makers with just five le­gis­lat­ive days to find a way to keep the Home­land Se­cur­ity De­part­ment open. Sen­ate Demo­crats re­main in­tract­able in their fili­buster of le­gis­la­tion to fund the de­part­ment, just as House Re­pub­lic­ans re­fuse to bring up a clean bill, leav­ing open the real pos­sib­il­ity that Con­gress will al­low part of the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment to shut down for the second time in two years.

Re­pub­lic­ans are bank­ing on a very dif­fer­ent real­ity this time around, and they’ve already offered glimpses of the ar­gu­ments they’ll de­ploy if Feb. 28 ar­rives without a fund­ing deal.


Dur­ing the last shut­down, a ma­jor­ity of Amer­ic­ans blamed the GOP and the party’s ap­prov­al rat­ing fell to an all-time low of 22 per­cent in a Wall Street Journ­al poll at the end of Oc­to­ber. But if the Home­land Se­cur­ity De­part­ment shuts down on Feb. 28, Re­pub­lic­ans be­lieve Demo­crats will get the blame.

“Well, the Demo­crats are fili­bus­ter­ing. I don’t know how we get blamed for that this time,” Sen­ate Pres­id­ent Pro Tem Or­rin Hatch said last week.

As Sen. Mark Kirk of Illinois chillingly put it: “If they’re cyn­ic­ally try­ing to re­start the gov­ern­ment shut­down battle, they should be blamed dir­ectly. It’s a very dan­ger­ous game if we have a suc­cess­ful ter­ror­ist at­tack “¦ all the dead Amer­ic­ans from that should be laid at the feet of the Demo­crat­ic caucus.”

Of course, for Re­pub­lic­ans to make that ar­gu­ment suc­cess­fully, they’ll have to con­vince voters that this shut­down is dif­fer­ent, though the battle lines look very much the same. In 2013, House Re­pub­lic­ans at­tached a re­peal of the Af­ford­able Care Act to the fed­er­al fund­ing bill then, when the Demo­crat-con­trolled Sen­ate re­moved that pro­vi­sion, re­fused to pass a clean bill. Now, House Re­pub­lic­ans have at­tached lan­guage de­fund­ing Pres­id­ent Obama’s ex­ec­ut­ive ac­tion on im­mig­ra­tion to the DHS fund­ing bill and Demo­crats, no longer hold­ing the Sen­ate ma­jor­ity, are in­stead fili­bus­ter­ing.

The dif­fer­ence, Re­pub­lic­ans say, is the way the Sen­ate now op­er­ates un­der Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Mitch Mc­Con­nell. If Demo­crats don’t like the bill — and that’s an un­der­state­ment — all they need to do is agree to move for­ward and try to amend it. Left un­said, of course, is that Demo­crats would need 14 Re­pub­lic­ans to agree to take out any of the im­mig­ra­tion lan­guage on the bill, which ap­pears to be ex­tremely un­likely.

“I think their view­point is the polling data for them was so good when Re­pub­lic­ans took us to a shut­down,” Kirk said of Demo­crats. “We’ve got to ex­plain to the Amer­ic­an people that just be­cause something is good for Demo­crats, doesn’t mean it’s good for the coun­try.”

But Re­pub­lic­ans are in­creas­ingly cog­niz­ant of the me­dia cam­paign they will have to em­ploy to get that mes­sage across. More and more, Re­pub­lic­an mem­bers are be­gin­ning to sound like journ­al­ism pro­fess­ors, in­struct­ing re­port­ers in per­son on sev­er­al oc­ca­sions over the last week on how to re­port out the story. Sen. Ted Cruz, for ex­ample, put his ed­it­or cap on for a mo­ment dur­ing a press con­fer­ence on Thursday.

“I would sug­gest to our friends in the Fourth Es­tate,” Cruz said, “that every one of those Demo­crats when they walk off the Sen­ate floor, you should be ask­ing them: ‘If DHS fund­ing is so im­port­ant, why are you fili­bus­ter­ing fund­ing for DHS?’ “¦ I would sug­gest to each of you in the Fourth Es­tate an­oth­er ques­tion that would be en­tirely ap­pro­pri­ate to ask them: ‘Were you telling the truth or were you ly­ing when you said you op­posed the pres­id­ent’s un­con­sti­tu­tion­al ex­ec­ut­ive am­nesty? Be­cause if you were telling the truth, why then are you fili­bus­ter­ing?’ “

On Fri­day, 170 House Re­pub­lic­ans sent a let­ter to Sen­ate Minor­ity Lead­er Harry Re­id com­plain­ing that he has “re­peatedly ob­struc­ted even de­bat­ing this bill in or­der to pro­tect Pres­id­ent Obama’s un­con­sti­tu­tion­al acts and shield Sen­at­ors of your party — many of whom have pub­licly stated that they op­pose the Pres­id­ent’s uni­lat­er­al ac­tions — from vot­ing on the sub­stance of the House-passed bill.”


Com­pared to a two-week shut­ter­ing of the en­tire fed­er­al gov­ern­ment, a brief shut­down of the De­part­ment of Home­land Se­cur­ity wouldn’t ne­ces­sar­ily be very dam­aging, some mem­bers ar­gue. No chil­dren would be barred from the Na­tion­al Zoo, and no vet­er­ans would be forced to break in­to the WWII me­mori­al.

The truth is, the vast ma­jor­ity of DHS work­ers — in­clud­ing those re­spons­ible for pro­tect­ing the coun­try — will stay in their jobs. More than 85 per­cent of DHS em­ploy­ees con­tin­ued to work throughout the shut­down of 2013, ac­cord­ing to a Con­gres­sion­al Re­search Ser­vice re­port.

“Demo­crats are say­ing, ‘You’re put­ting our na­tion­al se­cur­ity at risk.’ The Amer­ic­an people don’t see this as who cares about na­tion­al se­cur­ity. “¦ We will al­ways win that mes­sage,” one Re­pub­lic­an Sen­ate aide said.

The think­ing goes that a short-term shut­down could spook enough Demo­crats in­to sup­port­ing the House’s DHS bill without do­ing much real dam­age.

Of course, some mem­bers dis­agree. Kirk, who has re­cently pushed for his lead­er­ship to bring a clean fund­ing bill to the floor, told The Hill of a pos­sible shut­down: “It’s not liv­able. It’s not ac­cept­able. When you’re in the ma­jor­ity, you have to gov­ern. You have to gov­ern re­spons­ibly. And shut­downs are not re­spons­ible.”

And Mc­Con­nell vowed upon earn­ing his title as ma­jor­ity lead­er that there would be “no gov­ern­ment shut­downs” in the Re­pub­lic­an Con­gress, though as the Wash­ing­ton Post re­por­ted, some in his circle be­lieve that a brief fund­ing lapse at just one de­part­ment wouldn’t con­sti­tute a shut­down.


Some mem­bers are merely keep­ing their heads down, cog­niz­ant that who­ever Amer­ic­ans blame for a shut­down, this too shall pass.

Not long after the 2013 gov­ern­ment shut­down, Re­pub­lic­ans’ ap­prov­al rat­ings re­boun­ded — helped by a fo­cus on the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion’s dis­astrous rol­lout of health­ Des­pite pre­dic­tions that the shut­down would ru­in the party’s chances in the 2014 elec­tions — just over a year after the gov­ern­ment shuttered its doors — Re­pub­lic­ans won even more seats in the House and took over the Sen­ate.

“Demo­crats claim­ing that Re­pub­lic­ans are go­ing to take all the blame turned out to be non­sense. “¦ We lost the mes­saging war for 21 days. Ok, who cares? Who cares?” the Sen­ate Re­pub­lic­an aide said.

The 2016 elec­tions are even fur­ther away. And for now, it may not be a bad strategy to keep fir­ing up the base, Re­pub­lic­ans ar­gue. That in­cludes push­ing back on Obama’s ex­ec­ut­ive ac­tion — and vot­ing for the 56th time to over­turn the Af­ford­able Care Act.

But there’s an even more im­port­ant point. “As long as we’re talk­ing about this, we’re not talk­ing about what the Demo­crats want us to talk about,” the aide said.

The is­sue has com­pletely over­taken the policy pro­pos­als Obama out­lined dur­ing his State of the Uni­on last month. “No one gives a rat’s ass about what [Obama] said,” ad­ded the aide. “Everything is about what Re­pub­lic­ans want to talk about. As Newt Gin­grich used to say, there’s value in noise.”

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