I have no inside information about this; I’m just using 35 years of experience to read the tea leaves.
The question is…If the GOP that seems to be so intent on firing up its base by talking about a government shutdown next year has a chance do it this week, that is, about a month before the 2010 mid-term election, why wouldn’t it grab at the opportunity?
The answer: There may only be one really good reason for the GOP not to go for it and a bunch of reasons why trying to shut the government now could make a great deal of political sense.
Most of us who follow the budget process have been assuming up to now that the showdown would happen next year. The most common scenario has been that Congress will pass a continuing resolution this week that would last until around Thanksgiving and then extend the CR in the lame duck session until around the middle of February. That would give either the new Republican-controlled House and/or Senate or the larger Republican minority in both houses the ability to deal with the expiring appropriations. The theory has been that a shutdown would be threatened or allowed to happen at that point when the Republicans have more leverage.
But…The GOP could have that same leverage when the first CR has to be enacted by midnight this Thursday or federal departments and agencies will turn into a pumpkin as fiscal 2011 begins. Senate Republicans could easily force the same type of showdown with congressional Democrats and the White House we have been thinking wouldn’t happen until next year if they are willing to filibuster the CR.
At that point, Senate Democrats would be faced with the choice of giving in to the GOP demands and passing a continuing resolution as they insist it be written or risk taking the blame for shutdown that would begin next Friday. If they pass the CR with the GOP-demanded changes, Senate Democrats take the risk that their House counterparts won’t consider it. And if both houses were willing to pass the GOP-drafted CR, the burden would be on the White House: Sign the bill and look weak or veto it and risk being blamed for the government shutting its doors.
At the very least, this would keep Congress in session much longer than Democrats had hoped and prevent them from campaigning for reelection full-time for at least several weeks.
The risk for the GOP is that, as happened following the shutdowns in 1995 and 1996, it will be blamed for this shutdown and that the party will suffer politically at the polls because of it. And if the shutdown lasted for four weeks or so, the impact on businesses and individuals that depend on federal services and doing business with Washington would become increasingly difficult and the threat of voter retribution severe. That could energize the Democratic voters who so far seem lethargic.
But there is a big difference between 1996 and 2010 that may actually reduce or even eliminate much of this risk: in 2010 the GOP is clearly playing to its base and the tea party wing of the party that seems to like the idea of a take-no-prisoners approach to dealing with the White House. Equally as important, the tea party wing of the party appears to be what’s providing the enhanced enthusiasm that’s making Republican voters more likely to show up at the polls this year than either independents or Democrats.
What makes at least the consideration of a shutdown this week even more likely is that it could be over the same exact issues we’ve been assuming would precipitate a showdown next years. Republican senators can just as easily demand that the CR that will be considered this week include language prohibiting any funds from being used to promulgate regulations on health care and financial services, and that spending be at the 2008 rather than the 2010 level as they could next February. They could then use this to demonstrate they were serious out the Pledge to America released last week.