Is House Speaker John Boehner wilier than Newt Gingrich?
In the mid-1990s, Gingrich, then the speaker, enthusiastically charged into a budget face-off with President Clinton that led to not one but two government shutdowns. (One lasted five days; the other, 21.) Gingrich emerged wounded from the battle -- which had been waged over the GOP's calls for deep spending cuts -- and Clinton went on to win reelection in 1996; his Democrats netted nine seats in the House. The politerati's consensus since then has been that this fight was Gingrich's Waterloo, the beginning of the end for him. Now Boehner is heading into a similar tussle.
First, some background. Because Congress did not approve its appropriations bills last year -- bad, Congress, bad -- the federal government is being financed by one big cover-it-all spending measure called a continuing resolution, which funds the government at current levels. But the CR that was passed last fall had an expiration date: March 4, 2011. If no spending bill is approved by then, there will be no money for non-essential federal government services.
When this happened during the Clinton-Gingrich fight, the consequences were far-reaching. A recent Congressional Research Service report
listed several examples:
- New patients were not accepted for research programs at the National Institutes of Health.
- The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention stopped their disease surveillance programs.
- Toxic waste clean-up work at 609 sites was halted.
- Recruitment and testing of law enforcement officers (including 400 border patrol agents) was delayed.
- Almost 400 national parks were closed, as were national museums and monuments.
- Visa and passport applications went unprocessed. (U.S. tourist industries and airlines lost millions of dollars.)
- Various veterans services were curtailed.
Plenty of other government services came to a grinding halt. The processing of Social Security and Medicare checks were delayed. All in all, the shutdown was not welcomed by most of the public. And Gingrich was left holding the bag. If a shutdown occurs at the end of next week, who'll get the blame -- or credit?
Last week, Boehner took a stance that could lead to such a suspension. Here's why: His House Republicans this past weekend passed a new continuing resolution with $61 billion in dramatic spending cuts affecting health, environmental, education, law enforcement, and worker and consumer safety programs. In response to these cuts, the Democrats in control of the Senate have said, fuggedaboutit. Meaning they will not rubber-stamp the House Republicans' spending bill. Consequently, the two sides have to work out a deal. But the March 4 deadline looms, and this week -- wouldn't you know! -- Congress is not in session. That leaves five days the following week to sort this out. Otherwise, ka-boom!
What would be the reasonable course of action in a situation like this? The answer is obvious: pass a short extension of the current continuing resolution -- say, for a few weeks -- to cover the time needed to hammer out a compromise between the House GOPers and Senate Democrats. And House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi has done just that, proposing
a stopgap bill that would fund the government at current levels until the end of March. Boehner, though, has declared he won't accept a temporary measure unless it includes spending cuts. So if he sticks to that extreme position and
he and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid don't reach a compromise by March 4, much of the federal government will shut down.
In such a scenario, it would seem that Boehner would deserve most of the culpability. Just like Gingrich. But would Boehner pay the same price?
The political dynamics are different this time. And Boehner is playing to two audiences that each is looking for a different show. Much of the tea party crowd -- in and out of Congress -- would cheer a government shutdown. These folks see the federal government as the enemy. They'd be delighted to strangle it, even if only for a few days. Yet independent voters, whom both parties need to court, would probably not be as happy. These people usually want their representatives in Washington to make the system work. They aren't looking for showdowns or games of chicken. By forcing a shutdown, Boehner can appease his right -- but at the cost of potentially alienating the middle.
Of course, if a shutdown comes, Boehner will try to blame it on Democrats and President Obama, claiming that their unwillingness to accept spending cuts created the problem. He'll bash them for not listening to the people, and he'll depict himself as a champion of principle. If it comes to this, it will be the climax of the GOP's just-say-no strategy of the past two years.
Capitol Hill Democrats say Boehner is riding the Overreach Express and risks coming across more as a tea party bomb-thrower than as a responsible legislator. At least, that's their hope. It will certainly take some deft maneuvering for Boehner to cause a shutdown, accuse the Democrats, and be hailed as a spending-cut hero of the republic. But it's hard to know where the American public is these days. It generally detests overall government spending, but opposes many of the individual cuts the Republicans have passed. And though the American electorate sent a band of conservative ideologues to Washington this past November, many Americans fancy the notion of bipartisan cooperation. It's no sure bet that the public will embrace a politician who throws this switch.
Boehner might be the player who has the most to lose. Obama and the Senate Democrats are already viewed as politicians who consider government a positive force that can be used to resolve the nation's problems. If they draw a line against severe GOP cuts and ask for more time to forge a compromise, that's hardly a news story. But Boehner, who is still a new figure on the scene, has benefited by not being regarded as an ideologue. If he refuses to back a measure that keeps the government functioning while the politicians look for a bipartisan deal, he could end up becoming identified as an I-know-best, anti-government extremist. That will, no doubt, be a badge of honor in certain circles. But it may not go over well beyond those quarters.
Boehner has a choice: reasonableness or ideology. In 1996, Gingrich chose the latter and crashed. At that time, Boehner was in his third term as a House member. The next two weeks will show what lessons he learned -- if any.
You can follow Daivd Corn's postings and media appearances via Twitter.