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GOP Gets Ready to Own a One-Sided Shutdown Argument

Past showdowns happened in divided governments, and still Republicans got blamed. So what’s different now?

President Donald Trump, flanked by Wyoming Sen. John Barrasso and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell faces the prospect of the first government shutdown when one party controlled all levers of government. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
President Donald Trump, flanked by Wyoming Sen. John Barrasso and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell faces the prospect of the first government shutdown when one party controlled all levers of government. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Among the story lines that have made the first year of Donald Trump’s presidency genuinely unique, few can top this one for its potential consequences for responsible governance as well as good politics: A government controlled exclusively by one party may shut itself down.

Four times in the past three decades, budgetary impasses have required non-essential personnel to stay home and the activities at their agencies to be suspended. In each case, at least one chamber of Congress was controlled by a political party different from the president’s, the stalemates reflecting intractable partisan disagreements over policies and spending priorities.

Not this time.  

To remind, Republicans hold 55 percent of the seats in the House and 52 percent in the Senate, plus 100 percent of the seats in the Oval Office. That makes budget deliberations into something that, at least to the public, looks very much like a one-sided argument.

A shutdown, therefore, will inevitably be portrayed as the fault of a GOP incapable of settling disagreements with itself.  Whether that means the party gets branded as dangerously schizophrenic or unforgivably incompetent may not matter to an electorate just months away from deciding whether it’s time to make a midterm partisan course correction.

The GOP base may not see it this way. But if the past is prologue, then the voters who could go either way — and thereby hold control of the House, at least, in their hands — will not take kindly to the return of gridlock less than a year after dysfunction was supposed to start easing with the end of divided government.

Watch: Ryan Says House Will Pass Short-Term CR, Shutdown Up to Senate Democrats

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The political benefit of any triumph on the tax bill — a “do something” achievement that’s been elusive for a generation — may well be wiped away by being labeled “do nothing” for being either unwilling or incapable of keeping the government’s lights on and its workers safe from furlough over the holidays.

And yet these Republicans show serious signs of propelling themselves off this fiscal cliff of their own making.

That moment won’t be coming this week, even though the law that’s kept appropriated programs running in place is going to lapse Friday night. There’s a tacit and somewhat bipartisan agreement to enact a stopgap bill, or continuing resolution, postponing this year’s version of the belated budgetary day of reckoning until the weekend of Christmas.

With the One That Brung You

At least so far, the Republican leaders have shown willingness to cast their lot with the self-sabotage strategy of Trump — who made “our country needs a good shutdown” a particularly memorable sound bite around his 100th day in office, then last week went out of his way to stoke the drama with a tweet declaring “I don’t see a deal” with Democratic leaders even before the substantive bargaining between the White House and the bipartisan Hill leadership had begun.

Of course, the president’s tactic here could be as simple as engineering a breakup so he can claim credit for the eventual makeup.

But the dynamics of negotiations, once rattled by allegations of bad faith, cannot always be set back on course. (The collapse of the secret grand bargain talks in 2013 between President Barack Obama and Speaker John A. Boehner offer the most recent evidence of that.)

The nominal notion is that a holiday deadline will weaken the negotiating resolve of almost all Democrats. They may not hold the levers of power but still wield considerable leverage because getting the behemoth fiscal 2018 spending bill done will require some of their votes — at least eight in the Senate, to join the 52 Republicans in breaking a filibuster, and probably several dozen in the House, to offset the cluster of Freedom Caucus members and other dissidents who oppose any deal not totally aligned to their demands.

One hallmark of this extraordinary year in the capital has been that empirical truths about the government’s actions are being successfully denigrated as “fake,” while fact-free versions of alternate reality are being peddled to the public as what’s really going on in Washington.

In that environment, it comes as no surprise that Trump portrays himself as worry free, for himself or his adopted party, about the consequences of any shutdown — because he “would absolutely blame the Democrats” for holding fast to bargaining positions he’s eager to caricature beyond recognition.

“Illegal immigrants flooding into our country unchecked,” one of the president’s Twitter summaries from last week, which is simply not what Democrats are after.

Two of the minority’s main objectives for the year-end bill are providing statutory certainty for undocumented immigrants brought into the country as children, and also preventing much money from being dedicated to Trump’s proposed border wall.

Democrats and Republicans alike want to give the government a measure of stability by lifting for this year and next the separate spending caps regulating military and domestic spending, although the two parties are still apart on the amounts of extra spending to permit.

Dissonance All Around

The first shutdown of the modern era that compelled government furloughs, for five days bracketing Columbus Day 1990, stemmed from an impasse between President George Bush and a solidly Democratic Congress, although its liberal majority was joined by the most conservative Republicans in opposing a tax-raising deficit reduction package. Though there was scant polling on who was to blame, the next month saw a wave of anti-incumbent sentiment cut deeply into the victory margins of dozens of safe-seat incumbents from both parties.

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Five years later, a fundamental conflict over the size of domestic spending programs between President Bill Clinton and the first Republican Congress since the 1950s resulted in furloughs for more than 1 million government workers during two shutdowns, for five days in November 1995 and 21 more days ending in early 1996. An average of polls at the time found the public blaming the GOP by a ratio of two to one, and Clinton’s low public approval ratings surged just as he opened his re-election bid.

The political fallout was similar after the shutdown of 2013, lasting 16 days when President Barack Obama refused to sign any legislation delaying or defunding the 2010 health care law and the Republican House refused to produce a comprehensive spending bill without such language. Averaging six national surveys at the time pegged public blame for the standoff 50 percent on the GOP and 33 percent on the president. (To be sure, in the next midterm Republicans nonetheless won control of the Senate and picked up 13 House seats.)

The most recent polling on the subject came in April, the first time Trump and the Republican Congress were confronted with negotiations on an overdue spending package. A Quinnipiac survey found 53 percent ready to take the president and GOP lawmakers to task had the talks broken down — and just 32 percent eyeing the Democrats for blame. At the same time, a Morning Consult/Politico survey found 67 percent of Republicans and 76 percent of Democrats calling on the players to settle their differences without a shutdown.

Even in this idiosyncratic political environment, and despite the unparalleled ways Trump has challenged the norms of governance, all those numbers might give him and the GOP leadership pause as they face the brinkmanship of the season.

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