Remember the government shutdown of 1995?
House Republicans, still heady after their Contract with America victory of the previous year, faced off with President Bill Clinton over the budget. Republicans passed a spending plan, the president vetoed it, and neither side would agree to a continuing resolution that would have allowed the government to pay its bills while the dispute was resolved.
Money ran out. The government shut down. And it stayed closed for six days. A month later, after a temporary spending bill re-opened the government, it closed again, this time for 21 days.
Clinton’s approval ratings rose in the crisis, and Speaker Newt Gingrich’s suffered. A shutdown hasn’t happened since.
But U.S. Sen. Harry Reid says it could easily happen again.
The beginning of the 2010-11 fiscal year came in October, but Congress failed to pass a budget. Lawmakers have used continuing resolutions to keep things going, but disputes over government spending and raising the debt ceiling from its current $14.3 trillion will come to a head in March, when the temporary spending expires and the government uses up all its credit.
It’s then a renewed government shutdown becomes a possibility.
“It’s scary because the Republican leadership has refused to take shutdown off the table,” Reid said.
He’s right: In a recent “Meet the Press” interview, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell repeatedly refused to commit to keeping the federal government operating no matter what. Instead, he said, the expiration of the temporary budget and the debt ceiling deadline are opportunities to rein in spending.
And McConnell’s not alone: Newly elected Utah Sen. Mike Lee has said a government shutdown might be necessary to get control of federal spending. And he referred to the twin shutdowns of 1995 as “an inconvenience.”
Is that Republican posturing, a way to get Democrats to compromise on spending? Is it the GOP’s way of saying President Obama’s State of the Union suggestion to freeze just discretionary spending for five years just doesn’t go far enough?
“I hope that we’ll have sounder heads prevail,” Reid said. “All I can say is we’re going to find out.”
But the 1995 shutdown was a political disaster for Republicans, even if it delighted some who said it showed vast portions of the federal bureaucracy were not as essential to American life as Democrats would like the public to believe.
“Maybe they’re (Republicans) going to spread the blame around a little bit,” Reid said.
But the threat of a government shutdown isn’t just a scare tactic for Republicans. It’s an effective tool for Reid, as well. He has the figures at his fingertips: 400,000 Nevada seniors who wouldn’t receive their regular Social Security checks; 300,000 Medicare recipients whose service would be interrupted; 250,000 Nevada veterans whose health care and benefits would be threatened and more than a million Nevadans who will have to wait longer for their income tax refunds.
Message: Call your (Republican) members of Congress and urge them in strong terms not to let the government shut down. In other words, capitulate or at least compromise with Democrats on a final budget package and agree to raise the debt ceiling.
It’s doubtful either side will actually let the government close, but Reid may be right to worry. Republicans in 1995 were flexing their fiscal muscles, and the Tea Party movement considers attacking government spending job one. While leaders on both sides jockey for advantage, they may forget the real problems that could result if a responsible compromise isn’t found by next month.
There’s a lot more at stake than simply deciding who gets the blame.
Steve Sebelius is a Review-Journal political columnist. His column runs Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. Reach him at 702-387-5276 or at ssebelius@ reviewjournal.com.