Ghosts of Fiscal Fights Past Say Don’t Surrender

WASHINGTON, DC - AUGUST 02: Senate Minority Leader Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY) addresses the media after voting on the debt limit bill on August 2, 2011 in Washington, DC. The Senate voted 74-26 to approve the bill to raise the debt ceiling, allowing the U.S. to avoid default on its debts.
National Journal
Michael Catalini
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Michael Catalini
Oct. 6, 2013, 7:37 a.m.

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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