Government Shutdown? Not This Time

Despite the posturing and recycled threats, Republicans are not motivated to hold the government hostage just yet.

The Capitol is seen in Washington. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
National Journal
Ben Terris
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Ben Terris
Sept. 15, 2013, 4 a.m.

The drum­beat has already star­ted.

“GOP split over health care law boosts threat of a gov­ern­ment shut­down,” says the Los Angeles Times.

“A Gov­ern­ment Shut­down Just Got More Likely,” Busi­nes­s­Week said on Sept. 11.

“No Clear Path in Con­gress Avoid­ing a Shut­down,” NBC said on their web­site the next day.

It makes for an ex­cit­ing story — al­beit one that we’ve heard many times re­cently — but the gen­er­al con­sensus, both from out­side ex­perts and Re­pub­lic­an lead­ers, is that it’s just not go­ing to hap­pen. Yet.

“I’m very con­fid­ent in my be­lief that a shut­down will not hap­pen,” said a Re­pub­lic­an lead­er­ship aide. “I’m not go­ing to rule out the chance that it ever does. But the lead­er­ship team and over­whelm­ing num­ber of our mem­bers do not want to shut down the gov­ern­ment.”

Polit­ic­ally, Re­pub­lic­an lead­ers know it’s in their best in­terest not to have the gov­ern­ment shut down. A new poll from CNN found that the ma­jor­ity of the coun­try would blame them, not Demo­crats, if such a thing were to hap­pen. That is cer­tainly part of the pitch from top Re­pub­lic­ans to their mem­bers. They also want their col­leagues to think of passing a budget bill — one that keeps se­quester-levels of spend­ing in­tact — as a vic­tory in and of it­self. 

And as for fight­ing for such trophies as delay­ing or de­fund­ing Obama­care, Re­pub­lic­an lead­er­ship aides say that all they really need is just a bit more time to con­vince the hol­d­outs that there’s a bet­ter mo­ment to have that fight.

“If you’re look­ing to par­tially de­fund or delay the health care law, or in­di­vidu­al man­date, or try and force spend­ing cuts, it seems like, giv­en the tim­ing and lay of the land right now, the bet­ter place is on the debt lim­it,” said an­oth­er top Re­pub­lic­an staffer.

Why? Partly be­cause it gives GOP law­makers time to rally around a plan. It also has to do with mes­saging. Many sopho­more and fresh­man Re­pub­lic­ans got them­selves elec­ted by cas­tig­at­ing the coun­try’s bor­row­ing habits. For them, it’s bet­ter to fight about that than to look like a group of people who can’t even keep the gov­ern­ment’s doors open.

That doesn’t mean it’s go­ing to be easy, though. It hasn’t been so far.

After re­turn­ing from a month­long va­ca­tion, law­makers de­bated noth­ing but a pos­sible mil­it­ary strike against Syr­ia, leav­ing very little room for dis­cus­sions about fund­ing the gov­ern­ment. By the time House Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Eric Can­tor came up with a plan for such a fund­ing bill, he and the lead­er­ship team couldn’t garner enough sup­port from Re­pub­lic­ans to even bring it up for a vote. The prob­lem was, con­ser­vat­ives didn’t feel Can­tor’s bill made a real enough ef­fort to de­fund Obama­care. While the vast ma­jor­ity of Can­tor’s col­leagues sup­por­ted his plan, it would only take a small frac­tion of op­pos­i­tion to de­rail it.

The vote was put on hold, but House Speak­er John Boehner hin­ted at a press con­fer­ence that the plan is still to try and sell Can­tor’s pro­pos­al — or something like it — to his mem­bers. When a re­port­er im­plied that such a course of ac­tion had been re­jec­ted, the speak­er winked and said: “Not quite yet.”

It’s go­ing to be tough to get Can­tor’s plan ap­proved by 218 Re­pub­lic­ans. Rep. Tom Graves of Geor­gia has come out with a bill — co­signed by about 50 mem­bers and count­ing — that would fund the gov­ern­ment for a year while strip­ping away fund­ing for Obama­care un­til 2015.

“Our con­fer­ence is uni­fy­ing on this in ways I haven’t seen in a long time,” he said about his bill, which would surely be dead-on-ar­rival in the Sen­ate. “We have found the sweet spot that keeps the gov­ern­ment open and keeps away the harm­ful ef­fects of Obama­care.”

But even as Graves whips up sup­port for his own bill, some top con­ser­vat­ives ad­mit there may be oth­er ways to go about achiev­ing their goals.

“There are a lot of tools in our tool chest, wheth­er it’s the CR or the debt ceil­ing,” said Rep. Steve Scal­ise, R-La., whose job as the chair­man of the Re­pub­lic­an Study Com­mit­tee makes him an in­flu­en­tial fig­ure among the House’s most con­ser­vat­ive mem­bers. “There’s no one way to get this done.  We are not mar­ried to one plan.”

With neither Demo­crats or Re­pub­lic­ans hav­ing had much time to pre­pare for battle, with the debt ceil­ing just around the corner, and with an­oth­er pos­sible gov­ern­ment fund­ing fight kicked to Decem­ber, the best time for a knock­down brawl over spend­ing and health­care may be a little bit later.

“We are much more con­cerned about a shut­down later in the year,” said Sean West, the dir­ect­or of U.S. polit­ic­al risk at the Euras­ia Group, a con­sultancy that spe­cial­izes in fore­cast­ing polit­ic­al de­vel­op­ments. “Neither side is well po­si­tioned to weath­er the fall out of a shut­down at this stage.”

If this Septem­ber story line all seems too pre­dict­able, just stay tuned. Even if con­ser­vat­ives agree to fund the gov­ern­ment for a couple of months, it could set up a very cli­mactic Decem­ber.

“If you think con­ser­vat­ives are mad now, just wait un­til there’s a second CR,” West said. “They will have been steam­rolled by the first one, and prob­ably mad by how the debt ceil­ing went. That’s why the risk is high­er then.”

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