September 25, 2013

Government shutdown blame game in full swing

Each party is hoping the other will dig itself into a big hole. But the odds look about even.

By ZACHARY A. GOLDFARB The Washington Post

Democrats are working hard to exploit massive unrest in the Republican Party over the looming government shutdown, which many see as one of their best chances of holding the Senate or even gaining the House in next year's midterm elections.

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In 1995, Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, opens a box of coal, which he said would be a Christmas gift for President Clinton. At the time, Republicans in Congress were engaged in a standoff with Democrats over the budget that had led to a six-day partial shutdown. Democrats are hoping the current, similar standoff will help them at the polls.

The Associated Press

White House officials and other Democrats have been content to watch in recent days as Republicans have torn into one another over strategic disputes and are in no rush to launch negotiations on how to avoid a shutdown.

Instead, they have attacked Republicans as reckless, pressuring them to decide whether to keep the government open with no strings attached -- as Democrats favor -- or shut it down.

The key to the Democratic strategy is a belief that a showdown is likely to play out similarly to the government shutdowns of 1995 and 1996, which turned public opinion sharply against the Republican majority.

"It wouldn't be the worst thing for Democrats if [Republicans] tried to shut the government down," Hillary Rodham Clinton, the former secretary of state and a potential 2016 presidential candidate, said in New York on Tuesday.

"We've seen that movie before, and it didn't work out so well for those so-called obstructionists," she added.

As a result, many Democrats welcomed Tuesday's filibuster-style floor speech by conservative Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, who pledged to talk as long as he could in an attempt to slow Democratic plans to advance a bill that would keep the government open while also funding President Obama's signature health-care law. House Republicans voted to strip funding from the Affordable Care Act last week in exchange for keeping the government running.

Cruz's demonstration -- which was opposed by many leading Senate Republicans and was set to end by Wednesday morning -- plays into a Democratic strategy to try to ensure that the Republican Party is blamed for a shutdown if one occurs.

Congress must act by Monday night to avoid most agencies closing on Tuesday. The showdown is likely to be a launching point for a similarly sharp debate next month over the federal debt ceiling.

Looking ahead to the challenging midterm elections, Democrats see a potential political boon in the ongoing fights. Democratic candidates in some competitive races have begun to attack incumbent Republicans over the Republican effort to defund the health-care law, airing advertisements and targeting their offices with constituent calls.

"We're going to make the case that 2014 is going to be a referendum between extremist Republicans and crisis, and leaders with reasonable solutions," said Rep. Steve Israel, D-N.Y., chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. "It does create a narrow path for us."

But Republican strategists say Democrats are overstating the potential benefits of the showdown for their side. They say that Democrats have their own problems -- particularly support for the Affordable Care Act in the face of public opposition. Republicans have launched their own television and Web ads linking Democrats in competitive districts to the health-care law.

"I don't see how the debate thus far helps them in any way, shape or form," said Daniel Scarpinato, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee. "It's only highlighted how obsessed the Democrats are with protecting Obamacare, to the extent they will not agree with any compromises in order to stop or slow it down."

But for Democrats, the experiences of 1995 and 1996, when government shutdowns breathed new life into Bill Clinton's presidency, stand as a model.

"It didn't go well for Republicans then, and there's reason to believe that public opinion is more likely to be against them now," said Jennifer Palmieri, White House communications director and a veteran of the Clinton White House.

(Continued on page 2)

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