Why a Government Shutdown Is So Unlikely

Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said shutdowns are a "failed policy." Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said shutdowns are a "failed policy." Timothy D. Easley/AP

Democrats have been floating an electoral dream scenario over the last week: House conservatives will revolt against their leaders and force a government shutdown a mere month before a pivotal midterm election.

Seizing on comments from Sen. Marco Rubio and Rep. Steve King, Democrats have been advancing the possibility that Republicans will push the economy to the brink.

"Republican leaders, once again, prefer to threaten another government shutdown over advancing essential legislation," said Drew Hammill, spokesman for House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. "It's time to end the kowtowing to the tea-party extremist elements, get serious about legislating for the American people, and take these ridiculous threats off the table."

The move would be electoral suicide for Republicans, which is precisely why the notion is so appealing for Democrats—and precisely why it is so unlikely to happen.

"Democrats are doing their best to gin up shutdown talk, but it smacks of political desperation," said a House GOP aide. "With an opportunity to win the Senate and gain seats in the House, there is no chance we're going to endanger that with a shutdown."

Democrats, however, say that sounds familiar. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee went so far as to create a website highlighting quotes from Republicans playing down the possibility of a shutdown ahead of last year's funding lapse.

"At this time last year, John Boehner was making the exact same promises that he wouldn't shut down the government—and look at how that turned out," said Emily Bittner, spokeswoman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. "If Republicans are serious about keeping the government open, they'll take shutdown off the table immediately when Congress comes back into session, instead of forcing the American people to endure another protracted fight about the uncertainty of a shutdown."

The prevailing theory predicting a shutdown goes something like this:

1) President Obama announces an executive action easing deportations of some immigrants who were brought to the country illegally as children.

2) A contingent of House Republicans demand that leaders include language in a continuing resolution blocking Obama's action. Leaders do, pass it, and send it to the Senate.

3) The Senate refuses to pass the House CR, instead passing a version without the immigration language or simply calling on the House to pass a clean CR—that is, one without legislative add-ons.

4) The House holds steady and the government shuts down.

The scenario wasn't manufactured out of whole cloth; substitute blocking administrative immigration action with repealing the Affordable Care Act, and this is essentially what happened last year when the government did shut down.

For the most part, though, Republicans publicly and privately agree that allowing the government to shut down over health care law demands was neither practically nor politically advantageous. It hurt their image nationally, and numerous aides said there is no chance they will walk over that cliff again this year.

That is especially so because of the election. Sen. Mitch McConnell is projecting a hero's image of himself, hoping to win control of the Senate by saying that shutdowns are "a failed policy" that he would not allow on his watch.

The House is key to winning the Senate this year. Six House Republicans are seeking a promotion to the Senate, including two races that are pivotal to wrestling control of the chamber from Majority Leader Harry Reid—Rep. Bill Cassidy's challenge to Sen. Mary Landrieu in Louisiana and Rep. Tom Cotton's attempt to unseat Sen. Mark Pryor in Arkansas.

House leaders are wary of endangering these candidates' chances by playing into Democrats' attempts to stigmatize the House GOP as extremists hellbent on a government shutdown.

So if both House and Senate Republican leaders have made clear they don't want a shutdown, then who does? Those who believe a shutdown is on the horizon say it is not leaders, but the rank and file that will force it. They point to quotes from King insisting that a CR include a rebuke of Obama if the president issues an executive action on immigration.

In this scenario it would be a repeat of last month, when leaders bowed to their hard-liners to pass a border supplemental funding bill. Still, beyond King, it is unclear how much appetite there is to force the immigration issue in a CR. Other GOP members have advised against toying with a shutdown.

But even if members do revolt against leaders, GOP aides believe there would be a solid 170 or more House Republicans who would vote along with Democrats to pass a clean CR. There is much precedent for such a vote, especially on issues that decide elections. Earlier this year, over the objection of many conservatives, the House passed a flood-insurance bill, which was seen as important for Cassidy's election prospects, as well as the reelection of members in House swing districts affected by storms and flooding.

Of course, the chain of events leading to a shutdown only proceeds if Obama does move administratively on immigration. New reports say Obama may not even issue an executive order until after the election, which would render the issue entirely moot—at least until the next appropriations deadline.

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