Republicans talk up a 'government shutdown.' Do they mean it?

With a series of fiscal deadlines approaching, some Republicans in Congress say they're ready to shut down the government to get real spending cuts, a reprise of the famous shutdowns of 1995.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP
The Capitol is seen at sunrise in Washington, D.C., Monday. Republicans are talking about a possible government shutdown to get real spending cuts.

With one short-term deal to avert the fiscal cliff behind them, Republicans have already moved on to Round Two, and are making it clear that this time, they believe they have a lot more leverage – including the threat of a government shutdown.

Yes, you heard us correctly. The same party that shut down the federal government twice back in 1995 – only to suffer a massive public backlash, paving the way for a sweeping reelection victory for President Bill Clinton – is now openly suggesting that they'd walk that same plank again. In fact, listening to the rhetoric coming from many GOP members recently, it's sounding like a possibility they'd not only accept, but would actually embrace.

To give just one example: Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, a tea party favorite, told CNBC last week: "I think we have to be prepared to go so far as to shut the government down if we don’t get some serious policies to stop the out-of-control spending, to tackle the debt, and to get economic growth."

There's been some interesting revisionism of late when it comes to the 1995 shutdowns. Republicans have been suggesting that those episodes, far from being a political disaster for their party, were actually positive, because they pushed President Clinton to embrace smaller government and led to the eventual accomplishment of things like a balanced budget and welfare reform.

On NBC's "Meet The Press" on Sunday, former shutdown-architect Newt Gingrich himself made the case that the events of 1995 could provide a good model for action today, saying: "I helped close the government twice. It actually worked. Bill Clinton came in and said 'the era of big government is over' after two closures, not before."

That view was echoed by Arizona Rep. Matt Salmon, who was in the House for the 1995 shutdowns, and said on CBS's "Face the Nation" Sunday that they "actually gave us the impetus, as we went forward, to push toward some real serious compromise." When asked if he thought a shutdown now would be a good idea, Salmon said, "Yes, I do."

Now, not surprisingly, the Republican leadership in Congress has been far more circumspect on this point. On "Meet The Press," Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell repeatedly dodged the question when asked if he would "rule out" a government shutdown.

And even many of those suggesting that a shutdown may be necessary seem to be deliberately tempering their language, making it clear it would only be a "partial" or "temporary" measure.

Sen. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania told MSNBC last week that his party should be prepared to "tolerate a temporary, partial government shutdown." And Texas Sen. John Cornyn wrote in an op-ed in the Houston Chronicle: "It may be necessary to partially shut down the government in order to secure the long-term fiscal well being of our country, rather than plod along the path of Greece, Italy, and Spain."

Republicans are also not making it clear how, exactly, they'd choose to pursue such a "partial," "temporary" government shutdown. In coming months, Congress will face three separate fiscal deadlines: the debt-ceiling limit, the postponed spending cuts known as the sequester, and the expiration of the stopgap measure currently funding the federal government.

Some have suggested they might use the debt-ceiling fight to force a shutdown – Senator Cruz, for example, told radio host Mark Levin: "What would happen if the debt ceiling isn’t raised is it would be a partial government shutdown. We’ve seen this before, we saw this in 1995, when Republicans in the House shut down the government. What happened was it was a partial shutdown, there was some political cost to be paid, but at the end of the day, because Republicans stood strong in 1995, we saw year after year of balanced budgets and some of the most fiscally-responsible policies Congress has produced in the modern era. If we hold strong we can do that again."

But as Slate's Matthew Yglasias pointed out last week, shutting down the government by refusing to raise the debt ceiling is a far cry from previous government shutdowns. He writes: "If the debt ceiling isn't raised, the Treasury won't have the money to pay the bills it has to pay. The result won't be a "shutdown" of government functions; it'll be a deadbeat federal government. Some people won't get money they're legally entitled to."

On the other hand, shutting down the government by failing to agree on new appropriations would be more like 1995. But according to some reports, it's also the least likely outcome. The Hill's Erik Wasson calls the behind-the-scenes talks over the spending bills a rare "bright spot" in an otherwise "gloomy congressional outlook," and quotes several members as saying that those negotiations – which have been quietly underway for months – have already been largely worked out.

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