Latest GOP strategy on government shutdown: Can it work?

Warring factions among congressional Republicans like the latest idea for resolving the government shutdown: restore funding a few agencies at a time (but leave out Obamacare). Senate Democrats aren't going for it, though, and the public may not give the GOP any credit either.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP
With the federal government out of money and out of time, House majority leader Eric Cantor (R) of Virginia (c.) meets with House GOP conferees as the GOP-led House and the Democratic-led Senate remain at an impasse, neither side backing down over 'Obamacare,' Oct. 1, 2013, on Capitol Hill in Washington.

The House Republican leadership now believes it has a winning strategy for the government shutdown crisis – or if not a complete path to victory, at least tactics that will lead to short-term gains in public opinion for the GOP and that will pressure Democrats to open negotiations aimed at resolving the standoff.

Speaker John Boehner’s new playbook revolves around something Sen. Ted Cruz (R) of Texas suggested earlier: Break up the big government spending bill and try to fund popular programs and agencies with mini-continuing resolutions (CRs).

The virtue of this approach from the GOP point of view is that it could put pressure on Democrats – particularly Senate Democrats – by forcing them to take difficult votes on items such as health care for military veterans. It also unites the fractious Republican House caucus. Tea party conservatives approve, because none of the bills in question would fund operations related to "Obamacare." Other GOP House members see the strategy as a simple move forward.

“The leadership knows this course won’t be easy to hold, and, as ever, any day in the House GOP can be unpredictable. But they’re going to keep at it, knowing conservatives will only tolerate so much, and crossing their fingers that [Senate majority leader Harry] Reid shares the blame and, if pricked in certain spots, starts to bargain,” writes National Review’s Robert Costa.

The course of the government shutdown drama remained unclear on Wednesday, as President Obama invited congressional leaders to the White House for an early-evening meeting.

Meanwhile, the opening round of the GOP's latest approach came Tuesday, when the House leadership brought three mini-CRs to the floor. They would have funded the Veterans Affairs Department, the national parks, and city services in Washington, D.C. (Those still subject to federal appropriations, did you know that?)

These bills lost. They’d made it to the floor under expedited procedures that meant they needed a two-thirds vote to pass, which is a high hurdle. Many Democrats from safe blue seats voted against the mini-bills, despite an impassioned plea from D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton that they at least pass the funds for her city.

The House leadership has vowed to try these and other small measures again Wednesday under regular rules, so that the bills can be approved with a simple majority. In that scenario, they’re likely to pass. Then they’ll be sent to the Senate – in all likelihood, to die.

Senator Reid has made it clear he’s not tempted by the prospect of ending the shutdown one bill at a time. That’s because he sees the tactic as a way to open popular parts of the government, lessening pressure on Republicans, while allowing the GOP to still hold hostage some parts of the government, such as the Environmental Protection Agency and discretionary Obamacare funds.

In any case, President Obama has vowed to veto the mini-bills.

“Consideration of appropriations bills in a piecemeal fashion is not a serious or responsible way to run the United States Government. Instead of opening up a few Government functions, the House of Representatives should re-open all of the Government,” said the White House in a statement released Wednesday.

Does the GOP approach stand any chance of success? As Mr. Costa notes, Republicans hope the drip, drip mini-bill approach will put continued pressure on swing- and red-state Democrats worried about taking votes that will damage their standing at home. If Democratic unity cracks, goes the thinking, then party leadership will begin looking for a negotiated exit.

The problem for Republicans is that right now their party is the one showing cracks. A number of Senate Republicans have no stomach for a fight tying continued government spending to defunding or delaying implementation of the Affordable Care Act. A small number of House GOP moderates have said publicly that they’d support a continuing resolution funding the entire government.

In the face of this disarray, Reid has so far found it easy to hold Senate Democrats together to swat back everything the GOP-led House has sent him so far.

Plus, now that the government is already shut, it may be too late for such legislative maneuvers to register on public opinion as a whole.

It’s possible that the piecemeal strategy will give Republican strategists ammunition to use against individual House or Senate lawmakers in 2014. (“Your Democratic congressman voted to deny health care to veterans!”) But Republicans' larger problem at this moment is that they need to direct more of the blame for the current state of affairs to the White House and Democrats as a whole, according to polls.

In that context, the mini-bills may be too little, too late: clever but arcane tactics undertaken at a point when a news tsunami about the shutdown and its effects will overshadow them.

“It’s very possible public perceptions of a protracted standoff will be shaped less by details of the budget debate and more by already existing perceptions of which side is more committed to constructive governing,” writes left-leaning pundit Greg Sargent on his "Plum Line" blog at The Washington Post.

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