Conservatives cheered when freshmen in the House Republican caucus demanded and got steeper cuts in the remainder of the FY2011 budget, but The Hill reports that Democrats in the Senate may gird themselves for a game of chicken. Chuck Schumer warned that the proposal would be dead on arrival in the Democrat-controlled upper chamber. A standoff could result in another government shutdown as it did in 1995-6, which both parties say they want to avoid but neither will eschew entirely:
Lawmakers from both parties stress they want to avoid a rerun of the stalemate that led to a shutdown in late 1995 and early 1996. But the rhetoric on spending has escalated, and Democratic and GOP officials are already prepping for the blame game.
Positions have hardened after a revolt last week by House conservatives, who forced GOP leaders to nearly double their proposed spending cuts for 2011.
If the cuts pass the House, Senate Democrats say they are dead on arrival in the upper chamber. …
During a teleconference last week, Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) said, “Time is wasting while House Republicans argue among themselves about how extreme a proposal to send to the Senate. We are willing to meet the Republicans in the middle on spending, but they keep lurching to the right.
“And this infighting is causing delays that will take these negotiations right up to the deadline and risk a government shutdown. And that seems to be exactly what many Republicans want.”
Demmocrats have settled on the strategy of painting these Republicans as the direct successors of the 1995 caucus that burned themselves in a standoff with Bill Clinton. Republicans have been careful to stay away from endorsing the idea of a shutdown, not wanting to seem ambitious for that result as some Republicans appeared to be in 1995. Newt Gingrich and his team took the brunt of public disapproval in that instance, and helped Clinton’s standing with voters. At the time, Clinton seemed to have become irrelevant in the new GOP majorities in both the House and the Senate, and his tough fight against Gingrich restored his position in Washington.
However, 1995 was very different from what we face 16 years later. In 1995, while voters had concerns about Congressional spending, the budget was in much healthier shape than it is today. So was the economy, which helped boost revenues and made the budget balance sheet look that much better. The end result of the split power between Capitol Hill and the White House was a net reduction in discretionary spending and the curtailing of a major entitlement program (welfare), so in the end, Republicans won that battle, even if they took a hit to their popularity in doing so.
Today, voters understand that we have a massive deficit and debt crisis. The economy has stagnated for two years following the collapse of the housing bubble, and unemployment is much higher — 9.0% against 5.4% in November 1995, and the latter figure came with a much higher civilian population participation rate (66.5%, compared t0 64.2% last month). The political pressure to cut spending is much, much greater now — and a cut of less than three percent in a budget with a 42% deficit is not going to sound extreme to most voters.
If Democrats choose to play chicken with a government shutdown again, they may belatedly discover the difference between 1995 and 2011. The trick to playing chicken, as the film The Hunt for Red October instructed, is in knowing when to flinch.
Update: Paul Ryan says there won’t be a shutdown:
Republicans will pass short-term measures to keep funding the government rather than allow a shutdown, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) said Tuesday.
Ryan, the chairman of the House Budget Committee, said that if the GOP-held House can’t reach an agreement with President Obama and Democrats in the Senate on a continuing resolution (CR) funding the government the rest of this fiscal year, it would pursue temporary funding measures, and not allow a government shutdown.
“If we don’t get agreement in the meantime, yes, we do think there’s going to be some sort of situation where there’s a short-term CR,” Ryan said on “Good Morning America.”
“I think we’re going to have to negotiate exactly how those short-term CRs occur,” he added.
This message was apparently approved by John Boehner.