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.”
What We're Following See More »
"A stopgap spending bill stalled in the Senate Friday night, leading to a government shutdown for the first time since 2013. The continuing resolution funding agencies expired at midnight, and lawmakers were unable to spell out any path forward to keep government open. The Senate on Friday night failed to reach cloture on a four-week spending bill the House had already approved."
"The FBI is investigating whether a top Russian banker with ties to the Kremlin illegally funneled money to the National Rifle Association to help Donald Trump win the presidency." Investigators have focused on Alexander Torshin, the deputy governor of Russia’s central bank "who is known for his close relationships with both Russian President Vladimir Putin and the NRA." The solicitation or use of foreign funds is illegal in U.S. elections under the Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA) by either lobbying groups or political campaigns. The NRA reported spending a record $55 million on the 2016 elections.
"Hundreds of new and supplemental FARA filings by U.S. lobbyists and public relations firms" have been submitted "since Special Counsel Mueller charged two Trump aides with failing to disclose their lobbying work on behalf of foreign countries. The number of first-time filings ... rose 50 percent to 102 between 2016 and 2017, an NBC News analysis found. The number of supplemental filings, which include details about campaign donations, meetings and phone calls more than doubled from 618 to 1,244 last year as lobbyists scrambled to avoid the same fate as some of Trump's associates and their business partners."