Lawmakers of both parties seek to avoid government shutdown

Democrats and Republicans are worried such a debacle would prove they can’t get their job done at a time when Congress’ approval ratings are already low.

A dozen years ago, a high-stakes budget battle between the White House and congressional Republicans resulted in a train wreck. The federal government partially shut down twice. Public disapproval of Washington soared, as voters voiced disgust with their obviously dysfunctional government.

Leon Panetta remembers that time well. As President Clinton's chief of staff, he helped plot strategy when House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., felt emboldened to draw a line in the sand over his party's budget priorities. Gingrich -- eager to make his mark after the GOP's 1994 electoral sweep gave it control of both chambers of Congress for the first time in 40 years -- calculated that a weakened president would capitulate to the Republicans' seven-year balanced-budget plan. But Panetta, a former House member, cautioned the speaker to avoid brinkmanship.

"I remember telling Newt Gingrich that it would be a helluva lot better for them to compromise and cut a deal with the president because, in the end, they would have gotten the credit for governing the country, rather than shutting the government down," Panetta recalled in a recent interview.

Gingrich and the newly elected House firebrands were not about to compromise. Yet, when the appropriations stalemate between them and Clinton closed some of the government in late 1995, it quickly became apparent that voters were directing their anger mostly at Republicans. The president successfully argued that he was standing up to heartless cuts in federal programs, such as Medicare and Medicaid, on which the most-vulnerable citizens depend. As Republicans lost the rhetorical battle, Gingrich was forced to relent.

Now Panetta worries that some of the same ingredients that produced that 1995 meltdown are evident today. Once again, an unpopular president and a newly empowered majority on Capitol Hill are bitterly divided over the budget, with plenty of encouragement from their electoral bases. Hard-charging Republicans are demanding that the White House flex some fiscal conservatism, while liberal activists, frustrated that Democratic lawmakers have failed to end the Iraq war, are eager to see a confrontation with President Bush.

"This president has been pretty unwilling to compromise on a lot of issues, and you get the sense that the Democratic Congress isn't particularly anxious to compromise with this president," Panetta observed. "That is a recipe for real trouble. That's why I am not very confident that they are going to easily resolve this issue."

All in all, Democrats want to spend about $23 billion more than the $933 billion that Bush requested for discretionary spending in fiscal 2008. The president, who has threatened to veto most of the pending appropriations bills, has signaled that he's ready for a fight. "You're fixing to see what they call a fiscal showdown in Washington," Bush told a friendly -- and receptive -- audience in Rogers, Ark., on October 15. "The Congress gets to propose and, if it doesn't meet needs as far as I'm concerned, I get to veto. And that's precisely what I intend to do."

Bush scolded Congress for not having sent any of the appropriations measures to him. Because the fiscal year started on October 1, the government is operating on a continuing resolution that expires on November 16. "I don't think it makes sense for a new Congress to come in and make promises about how they're going to be wise about what they're going to do with your money and ... not being able to perform," Bush said.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., shot back within hours of the president's speech. "The worst-kept secret in Washington this fall is that President Bush, after refusing to veto even one appropriations bill over the last six years, wants to instigate an appropriations fight with Congress in a vain attempt to establish his bona fides with his conservative base," Hoyer said. "After enacting policies that ignited record budget deficits and added more than $3 trillion to the national debt, the president simply has no standing to lecture anyone on the importance of fiscal responsibility."

And, in a refrain sure to be heard over and over in coming weeks, Hoyer emphasized that Democrats want to "adequately" fund education, clean water, veterans health care, and other domestic programs, in contrast to Bush's "deeply misguided" priorities. "At the same time that he is proposing cuts to key domestic programs, he is demanding that Congress appropriate another $190 billion for the war in Iraq -- with all of that Iraq funding added to the deficit," Hoyer said.

Despite the fiery rhetoric and the likelihood of a clash that could keep Congress in session until Christmas, members on both sides of the aisle agree on one thing: They want to avoid a government shutdown. In interviews with National Journal, eight lawmakers from across the ideological spectrum said that even as they brace for battle, they believe that closing the government would be ill-advised and counterproductive.

Likewise, an early-October poll of NJ's Congressional Insiders found that both Democrats and Republicans saw only a "low" chance that a spending deadlock would lead to a government shutdown this year.

Lessons Learned

So why, if party activists are hell-bent on encouraging a war over budget priorities, is there such reluctance on Capitol Hill to push a showdown into a shutdown? The answer seems to lie in the lessons that both parties have drawn from 1995.

First, Democratic and Republican lawmakers worry that such a debacle would amount to a self-indictment -- proof positive that they can't do their job at a time when Congress's approval ratings are already in the toilet. A tacit, but obvious, second reason is that both sides worry about whom the public would blame.

Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., a moderate who sits on the Senate Appropriations Committee, was adamant that anyone looking to escalate the budget disagreements between Bush and the Democrats is missing the point from 1995. "Certainly the Republicans learned our lesson from Newt Gingrich that the people in the country expect us to act like grown-ups and do our job and not shut down the government," Alexander said.

Senate Majority Whip Richard Durbin, D-Ill., was just as resolute. "A government shutdown is a disaster for the American people," he said. "We don't want it to occur. We will do everything we can to make sure it doesn't happen. We have passed continuing resolutions until we can finish up with our appropriations bills, and that [shutdown] just isn't part of our strategy."

Even conservative Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., who has long railed against government spending and earmarks, said that a shutdown is off the table. "Nobody wins" when the government closes, Coburn said. "The American people reject that. That is the absolute incompetence of Washington -- all that does is prove the point."

For his part, Senate Republican Conference Chairman Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., is already set to assign blame. "If the government is shut down, it won't be because Republicans let it; it'll be because Democrats forced it," Kyl said. "I would hope Democrats would not play politics with this issue because it gets to the delivery of Social Security checks and keeping national parks open and all the other things that Americans really don't want to see jeopardized by political gamesmanship in Washington."

A senior Senate Democratic staffer worried that a shutdown battle with the president, even one whose public-approval ratings are also at rock bottom, carries too much risk. "We've read the clips from 1995. We've studied it, and we're just determined to avoid it," the aide said. "The president does have the bully pulpit -- a pretty powerful microphone to compete against -- even though in this instance the president is in a much more weakened position."

But when asked about the Democrats' apparent determination to avoid a shutdown, David Rohde, a Duke University political scientist, was skeptical that they could categorically rule out any tactic in the looming budget impasse.

"The only way for Democrats to absolutely guarantee that the government won't shut down is to capitulate to Bush," Rohde said. "If the president says, 'I am going to veto any bill that doesn't do exactly what I want,' the Democrats have a choice between accepting current policy, which is essentially what a clean continuing resolution does ... or [passing] a continuing resolution with changes. Then if Bush says, 'I'll veto any CR that has changes that I don't like,' the only way to absolutely guarantee that there is no shutdown is to capitulate completely."

If the government did close, Rohde added, "The absolute strategic requirement for the Democrats is not to be seen as causing it.... They have to be able to say, 'It's not our fault -- it's their fault.' This is what Clinton said about the Republicans in '95."

Democrats, in fact, seem to be taking a page from Clinton's budget playbook by emphasizing their support for popular social-welfare programs. Bush "repeatedly says no to health care, no to law enforcement, no to homeland security, no to stronger infrastructure, but he says yes to this intractable civil war in Iraq which is being paid for by borrowed money," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said at an October 22 press conference.

To counter the Democratic efforts, the White House message is that the debate boils down to a choice between continued economic growth and lower deficits versus more spending that will roll back the positive trends. "It is beyond our understanding why every problem that comes forward with this Congress requires increased spending," said Sean Kevelighan, press secretary for the White House's Office of Management and Budget.

Faux Fight?

Although not even an astrologer can foresee how the budget issue will play out, Democrats have begun to signal their initial strategy. They intend to send Bush a series of appropriations bills that enjoy bipartisan support. Early speculation has centered on the Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education spending bill, which the House passed in July by a 276-140 vote -- just 10 votes shy of the two-thirds needed to override a veto -- and which the Senate passed on October 23 by a veto-proof 75-19 vote.

The massive Labor-Health and Human Services bill contains roughly half of the $23 billion that Democrats want to spend overall above Bush's fiscal 2008 request, according to CongressDaily. Democrats were willing to strip out an embryonic-stem-cell research provision that Bush opposed, but the White House nonetheless said that the legislation is still objectionable because it contains "irresponsible and excessive levels of spending." Assuming that Bush follows through with his threatened veto, what next?

A senior Democratic staffer pointed to last spring's endgame over the Iraq supplemental spending bill. After Bush vetoed the legislation because of its Democratic-crafted timetable for U.S. troop withdrawal, Democrats eliminated the timetable and instead required White House progress reports and "benchmarks" for the Iraqi government to meet. They also added their long-sought minimum-wage increase to the final version, which Bush signed in late May. "We negotiated out a solution," said the staffer, adding that he hopes for similar give-and-take over the appropriations measures.

Republican lawmakers who face tough 2008 re-election battles support plenty of the programs in the veto-bait spending bills, putting them in a difficult position when Democrats try to override the Bush vetoes. "The president can stand his ground at 26-28-31 [percent] approval ratings because he's not running for re-election," the staffer noted.

But Rep. Jeb Hensarling, R-Texas, the chairman of the Republican Study Committee, a group of more than 110 House conservatives, said that the RSC has already rounded up enough commitments to sustain Bush's vetoes of appropriations measures. "We have a pretty deep bench to come on downfield should we need it in this fight," Hensarling said. He supports Republicans taking a firm stance and dismisses any efforts to minimize their differences with Democrats.

In Hensarling's view, the options are obvious: a "clean" continuing resolution that funds the government at current levels; a CR with proposed funding changes; or an omnibus bill that rolls a slew of appropriations measures into one big package. But he is so suspicious of Democrats' strategy that he added another option: "They may choose to violate their word and shut down the government and try to use that as a ploy to blame the president and see if they can leverage that into more spending."

Democrats' suspicion of the White House is just as intense. House Budget Committee Chairman John Spratt, D-S.C., noted that a $23 billion difference in a trillion-dollar budget would typically be settled by negotiations, rather than provoking a huge flare-up. "I don't think we are that far apart," Spratt said. "In normal times, this amount of disagreement would not bring the process to its knees."

Similarly, Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb., a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, noted that the president has shown no real desire to work out the differences. "They seem to be itching for a fight," Nelson said. "When I was governor [and] wanted to make sure that an important piece of legislation was veto-proof, we had our people working with members of the Legislature to make it veto-proof."

Still, some skeptics wonder if Democrats will take this match to the mat. They see party leaders as reticent to engage in a national controversy that could disrupt the political momentum that appears to be going their way heading into next year's presidential elections. A budget impasse wouldn't help at a time when their party's approval rating in Congress is about 10 points higher than the Republicans', when the list of GOP retirees keeps growing, and when polls indicate that their opponents' base is dispirited.

"What I see on the Democratic side is [a sense of], 'Heck, let's get through this next period and not take any big chances here, any risks. We have a chance to pick up seats. We might win the presidency, and then we can do what we want,' " said Steven Smith, a political scientist at Washington University. "This has been a Congress from the start that has been more geared to the next election than any Congress I have seen."

Maybe so, but as the rhetoric gets hotter and the posturing on both sides gets more menacing, it is hard to imagine this face-off ending in a whimper and not a bang.