WASHINGTON — When the government shut down early Tuesday morning, it seemed to be the inevitable conclusion to a drama that has been playing out for nearly three years.
But there weren’t many sighs of relief on Capitol Hill — or any indication that a resolution to the latest legislative stalemate would be swift. The very thing that kept congressional leadership up so many late nights, cutting so many last-minute deals, had finally happened: The government was closed for business.
Lines in the sand have been drawn: Senate Democrats and the president won’t accept changes to Obamacare as part of a government funding deal, and House Republicans are refusing to pass anything that doesn’t give them some concessions on the health care law they’ve been fighting since taking over the majority.
The long legislative game of ping-pong (or tennis or hot potato or whatever worn-out analogy you might want to use) over a six-week spending bill ended in the middle of the night with House Republicans voting to go to a conference to work out their differences with the Senate, something that Majority Leader Harry Reid quickly rejected for such a short funding measure.
When House Speaker John Boehner approached the microphones around 1 a.m., he was in a spot that he had spent a lot of time trying to avoid. In the past, he had succeeded by giving just enough to the conservative wing of his conference to keep them happy while still allowing the government to function in short bursts. But this time around, Boehner had very few good options.
“The House has made its position known very clearly,” he said to reporters. “We believe we should fund the government and there should be basic fairness for all Americans under Obamacare. The Senate has continued to reject our offers.”
“I would hope the Senate would go to conference and discuss this so we can resolve this for the American people,” he added.
Reid called the shutdown “a very sad day for our country,” as he adjourned the Senate for the night.
“It is embarrassing that these people are elected to represent the country, are representing the tea party,” he said.
If the last few days have felt familiar, it’s because the seeds of the government shutdown were really sown in early 2011. After the Republicans swept into power in the House, there was a brief period when Washington thought a new era of compromise — absent during the first part of Obama’s administration when Democrats were in charge of everything and Republicans offered united “no” votes and filibusters to their policy proposals — was possible.
Obama and Boehner reached out to each other, agreeing to shift the nation’s attention to deficit reduction and away from economic stimulus. But the deal Obama and Boehner tried to cut made neither man’s party happy, and Boehner felt the wrath from his caucus’s tea party wing.
Running parallel to the budget wrangling was a Republican plan to use the regular debt ceiling vote, which allows the Treasury to pay the nation’s bills by borrowing the money needed, to exact spending cuts from reticent Democrats in the Senate and from Obama. The twin battles over the debt ceiling and the budget created a constant-crisis environment that saw a lot of last-second saves and left many observers convinced that, eventually, Washington wouldn’t be able to put the brakes on before it was too late.
That standoff led to the Super Committee, a deficit-reduction working group whose failure to create a deal brought us the sequester. Continuing resolutions went on, and eventually the House GOP used one to force the Senate to pass their first budget since 2009. House Republicans refused to hold a budget conference committee with the Senate, due to fears from the tea party members that Democrats would use the conference to sneak a budget that raised taxes and spending through Congress. Obama eventually agreed to fund a short-term continuing resolution that funded the government at sequester levels, far lower than Democrats would have liked.
So when this deadline finally came around, Obama remained firm in his stance that he wouldn’t negotiate with Republicans at all over keeping the government running.
Privately, Democrats and Republicans are hopeful that a shutdown could end the era of crisis governing, but no one is exactly brimming with optimism.
“I honestly don’t know how bad it’s going to have to get first, but I think this might be what finally brings us back from the brink of insanity,” said one Republican member elected in 2010. “This is getting really old and I don’t think anyone is looking at us and thinking, Oh, what they are doing makes perfect sense. What’s happening now is not an easy thing to explain.”
“The shutdown and a debt default will ultimately be a fierce market reaction, and it will pistol-whip Congress and force us to do later what we should do right now,” said Democratic Rep. Peter Welch.
House Republicans are unclear on what the next steps might be or what could even be agreed to if a conference committee ever convenes. The two parties remain very far apart on their goals, and any agreement would expire in only a few short months.
“The whole process doesn’t make sense. We should end this,” said GOP Rep. Peter King, who has called his colleagues’ efforts to change Obamacare in the continuing resolution a “fool’s errand.”
Leading the Republican charge to delay or defund the health care law as a part of any must-pass spending bill is Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, who launched into a 21-hour floor speech last week to rally for his cause. Behind him are many House Republicans, who were able to convince Boehner to go along with the tactic.
Those conservatives firmly believe that they will win the public relations war against Senate Democrats and the president, even as the government grinds to a halt.
“The country is unified behind the idea we should do everything in our power to delay, defund, stop, repeal Obamacare,” said Texas Rep. John Culberson.
Democrats, meanwhile, are likewise convinced that it will be Republicans who will shoulder the vast majority of the blame and say the GOP will eventually be the first ones to blink.
“We don’t know how long it’ll be for,” said Rep. Joe Crowley. “When does this fever boil over and have the effect creating the pressure that will need to be created to open government again? I think it’s an outrage that they are playing these types of games with the American people. And I think at the end of the day [Boehner] will rue this day because he’s siding with a minority in his caucus and he’s not running the House. They are.”