Shutdown rhetoric carries risk, reward

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell's continuing resistance to rule out shuttering the federal government is winning him plaudits among Republican strategists, who hail it as the latest evidence of his negotiating acumen.

While Democrats have touted the prospect of a shutdown as a logical outgrowth of what they claim is a nihilistic GOP approach to government, few Republicans appear eager to embrace an actual shutdown. But that hasn't persuaded McConnell to publicly pull the plug on the idea, or stopped some party strategists from celebrating his strategy.

"Never underestimate Leader McConnell's savvy when it comes to negotiating," said Whit Ayres, the Republican pollster.

Of course, there are questions about whether pushing the ambiguity to its extremes represents good politics, let alone governing. But, as Ayres noted, "We're talking about negotiations at this point, not outcomes."

And McConnell has not approached a hard-line stance. During an appearance on NBC's Meet the Press ast month, he parried host David Gregory's thrusts at whether Senate Republicans would go all the way. Asked if a shutdown was a viable option, he replied, "We have two opportunities here to do something important on the issues of spending and debt."
Pressed again, he said again: "As I said, we have two opportunities."

Would he take it off the table?

"We have two opportunities."

Gregory relented, "Wish we had more time."

Some Republicans worry that any hint of a shutdown carries echoes of the disastrous 1995 shutdown, when the public turned away from the GOP and toward former President Bill Clinton. But both Speaker Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, and Majority Leader Rep. Eric Cantor, R-Va., have edged away from the hard line.

The party's general position is nowhere near the pitch Senate Democratic Policy and Communications Chairman Chuck Schumer of New York depicted Thursday, when he described a shutdown as one of the GOP's desirable outcomes.

And McConnell softened somewhat Thursday, when he said in a statement, "The only people talking about shutting down the government are a handful of Senate Democrats at a press conference today."

His spokesman, Don Stewart, said in an e-mail that Schumer appeared "strangely preoccupied" with the prospect.

"It is our hope that he soon realizes the only person talking about a shutdown is Senator Schumer. Most Americans and even many in his own party have come to realize that the gravity of our current fiscal problems calls for constructive dialogue that will lead to serious cuts in spending and debt. That's what Republicans are focused on," Stewart said.

Republican strategist David Winston said McConnell likely was not gaming out the shutdown blinking contest during his "Meet the Press" interview, but rather looking to drag Gregory onto the GOP's talking-point turf.

"All the discourse is: is government going to shut down? My sense of what McConnell is trying to drive home is we finally have the situation to actually get some things done," Winston said, adding that the upcoming debates over the continuing resolution and debt ceiling present "this unique bipartisan moment" that could remake the nation's fiscal outlook.

"What McConnell was trying to do was to get David Gregory to think differently about the opportunity," Winston said.

Where McConnell seems to draw the line is at the saber-rattling that the more unrelenting in his party might prefer, said David Kendall, senior fellow for health and fiscal policy at Third Way, the center-left think tank. "I don't think he's appeasing anybody, because he's not saying, 'we're going to take this fight to the streets and shut the government down,'" Kendall said.

On the flip side, McConnell's positioning presents a problem for Democrats if Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid , D-Nev., leads the fight against the GOP House majority's proposed $1.055 trillion cap on discretionary spending, $74 billion below President Obama's fiscal 2011 filing.

"The guy whose head rolls on this whole thing if this shuts down is Harry Reid, not Mitch McConnell," said GOP strategist Jim Innocenzi. "Last I looked, [Senate Democrats] still have the votes. He's pushing Harry Reid into a corner."

"Does he look like he's out there on the fringe if he's talking about this thing seriously? I think it's the context in which he says it," Innocenzi said.

Republican leaders profess to have learned the lessons of 1995, which put Clinton on the path to reelection a little over a year after the GOP's 1994 wave election. While the electorate vaulted true believers into the rank and file, both Boehner and McConnell have reserved for themselves the political realism bred from years in exile.

As the inevitability of some form of spending compromise grows, McConnell can likely use the leverage to wring from the Senate and White House some scale of the reductions Republicans have promised, then declare a measure of victory while continuing to blame Democratic intractability on outlays.

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