In shutdown showdown, a crucial question: Who will get the blame?

With Friday’s deadline looming to avert a government shutdown, some observers see a twist to what is typically a party-line battle. Some Republicans and Democrats say they are tired of short-term funding of government – with its patches, unpredictability, and the toll that takes.

Carolyn Kaster/AP/File
A US Park Police officer watches as a National Park Service employee closes access to the Lincoln Memorial in Washington during a partial federal government shutdown in 2013.

Let this be a warning to Republicans and Democrats as they ramp up their messaging wars as to who will take the blame for a potential government shutdown Friday at midnight: Things don’t always turn out as predicted.

Take the two back-to-back shutdowns of 1995-'96. Who would have known that visitors to the National Gallery of Art in Washington would raise such a ruckus? But they had flown in from all over the country and the world for an unprecedented exhibition of works by the Dutch Golden Age painter Johannes Vermeer. Instead of gazing at the “Girl with a Pearl Earring,” they faced shut doors – and a blizzard. The show was out for 19 days.

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R) of Georgia thought Republicans had the upper hand in this battle. They had swept Congress the year before, and thought the public would be sympathetic in their fight with President Bill Clinton over a balanced budget and other issues.

But whether it’s big or small government, people expect it to be there when they need it, says former Senate historian Don Ritchie. In the end, the public blamed Mr. Gingrich and the Republicans, who lost eight seats in the House in the next election.

“I think they were really shocked when the public got so angry over the shutdown,” says Mr. Ritchie. More than 20 years later, as the country stands on the precipice of another shutdown, Ritchie warns that both parties are in danger of a public backlash – depending on the severity of the impact and who gets the blame.

“You can’t predict what the reaction will be this time around,” he cautions. “Both parties are at risk if they think the public will rally to their support.”

This explains why the parties are taking the blame game so seriously. To them, it’s not a game but a strategy of political consequence, coming early in a new presidency, and in a year that could see one if not both chambers changing hands.

Congress is at this point because it once again failed to settle on a budget and approve the spending bills that fund the federal government. Now Republicans are racing to approve Congress’s fourth short-term spending bill since the fiscal year ended on Sept. 30. Its third one runs out Friday at midnight.

For Democrats, this deadline is a point of leverage to get a bipartisan deal on undocumented young immigrants known as “Dreamers” as well as a host of other issues, such as opioid funding and rural community health centers. Although Republicans control both chambers, spending bills can’t get through the Senate without clearing the 60-vote threshold. For that, they need Democratic support.

For Republicans, this latest patch is a necessary bridge to allow more time to work out an overall bipartisan budget agreement. They want a deal on Dreamers, too, they say, but point to a later deadline of March 5, when the Trump administration had planned to end the program that allowed them to remain in the country legally – known as the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA.

Short-term governance wearing out welcome?

There’s a twist to this party-line battle though, and that’s the distaste some Republicans and Democrats are expressing about a bubble-gum-and-string approach to budgeting. They say they are tired of the patches and the unpredictability and the toll that takes, especially on the US military. Republican Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Mike Rounds of South Dakota say they will vote against the short-term funding measure, as well as deficit hawk Rand Paul of Kentucky.

In the case of a partial government shutdown, only services considered nonessential – such as national parks, zoos, and museums, as well as small business loans, gun permits, and passport services – will be shuttered. Military personnel will still need to report for duty, although they may not be paid. Other services that would continue operating include Social Security, air traffic control, and the US mail.

Long-term trend

In a larger sense, these impasses are about more than broken budgeting or cherished issues, say observers. They reflect the long-term trend of polarized politics, in which the majority party shuts out the minority, pushing the minority toward more hardball tactics.

Former Sen. Tom Harkin (D) of Iowa, reflected on this Wednesday afternoon, after he left the ceremony for former Senate majority leader and GOP presidential nominee, Robert Dole of Kansas. Senator Dole, lauded for his bipartisan dealmaking, had just been awarded the Congressional Gold Medal – Congress’s highest civilian honor – in the soaring rotunda, where he was surrounded by lawmakers, the president, and vice president.

“The obligation of the majority is to offer a system whereby the minority’s views are heard, where the minority has a voice, where the minority has a vote, where the minority can offer amendments and have them duly considered” said Senator Harkin, as he walked alone past the chamber that was once his political home. The minority’s position is to offer their amendments, “but if they lose, that doesn’t mean they take all their marbles and go home.”

But that’s what’s happened, he said, “and both sides are to blame on that.”

Parties still at loggerheads

As of this writing, it looked like the parties were still at loggerheads, with all sides sharpening their shutdown messaging.

Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky pinned the blame of a harmful, manufactured crisis on Democrats for refusing a short-term deal with nothing in it that they could object to – and indeed, something they have clamored for since last fall, a six-year extension of the Children’s Health Insurance Program.  

Democrats, meanwhile say they are working hard to avoid closing the government, but if it comes to that, the blame will “fall on Republicans’ backs, plain and simple,” Senate minority leader Charles Schumer (D) of New York, told reporters Wednesday. “They’re in charge.”

“We are seeing Republicans get [the] blame,” concurs Democratic pollster Celinda Lake in an email. Not only do they control the presidency and the Congress, but people think Democrats like government and want it to be open and doing things, she writes.

And “people think this fight is about immigration,” she adds, saying that “in general” they support the Dreamers. Tremendous pressure from the Democratic base, including Latino groups, is being applied to lawmakers, putting some Democratic senators from red states in a tough spot.

Why this time feels different

The last time the nation saw a partial government shutdown – over the Affordable Care Act in 2013 – the public blamed Republicans, says Whit Ayres, a GOP pollster. The Republican Party’s favorability rating dropped 10 points in a matter of days and it took a year to recover, he says.

“Since Republicans control all the levers of government, it will take an extraordinary act of political agility to avoid the same fate this time.”

But this time is not the same, says Sen. Susan Collins (R) of Maine, who helped broker an end to the 2013 shutdown. “It doesn’t have the same feel to it,” she says. Beyond the lessons of 2013 – that shutdowns hurt the economy and the American people – she points to this difference: The standoff over Obamacare was highly partisan, while the Dreamers issue is bipartisan.

Indeed, Senator Collins is one of at least seven Republican senators supporting the Dreamers deal that Senator Graham and Sen. Richard Durbin (D) of Illinois took to the White House last week – only to have the president squash it, using vulgar language that has appeared to have made a deal even harder.

Collins says the bill, if brought to the floor and opened up to amendments, would attract more than 60 votes.

“There’s an awful lot of sympathy for removing the cloud that is hanging over the heads of Dreamers and also using it as an opportunity to make some significant immigration reforms,” she says, “so it has all the ingredients for a compromise.”

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