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Specter of ’95 government shutdown haunts GOP

Two sides point fingers over budget impasse

‘It’s good for political rhetoric to talk about a government shutdown,’ said GOP Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma. ‘It’s good for political rhetoric to talk about a government shutdown,’ said GOP Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma.
By Charles Babington
Associated Press / February 21, 2011

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WASHINGTON — Few memories haunt Republicans more deeply than the 1995-96 partial shutdown of the federal government, which helped President Clinton reverse his falling fortunes and recast House Republicans as stubborn partisans, not savvy insurgents.

Now, as Congress lurches toward a budget impasse, government insiders wonder if another shutdown is imminent — and whether Republicans would again suffer the most blame.

Leaders of both parties say they are determined to avoid a shutdown. But they have not yielded on the amount of spending cuts they will demand or accept. Meanwhile, shutdown talk is rippling through Washington and beyond.

“It’s good for political rhetoric to talk about a government shutdown. But I don’t know anybody that wants that to happen,’’ Senator Tom Coburn, Republican of Oklahoma, said on “Fox News Sunday.’’

Behind the scenes, Senate officials are spending Congress’ Presidents’ Day recess week poring over the spending proposal passed by the House early Saturday, one Democratic leader said.

“We are prepared to negotiate right away,’’ Senator Chuck Schumer, Democrat of New York, said on CNN’s “State of the Union.’’

If something doesn’t change before March 4, when the current funding measure expires, a partial government shutdown could be unavoidable.

President Obama’s administration is warning that workers who handle Social Security benefits might be furloughed. Almost hourly, top Democrats and Republicans accuse each other of pushing the government to the brink by being inflexible.

“So much is at stake if this great government shuts down,’’ said House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi. “I would hope that instead of having ultimatums, we go forward with an approach that talks about how we keep government open.’’

The House Republican campaign committee said Democrats are “shouting for a shutdown.’’

For all the political drama and rhetoric, the actual stakes of a shutdown are not so dire for ordinary Americans. The military would stay active, interstate highways would remain open, and government checks would be issued, although new applicants for benefits under programs such as Social Security might have their sign-ups delayed.

The federal government has had more than a dozen shutdowns since 1981. Some lasted only hours; few are remembered.

The exception is the two-stage partial shutdown of 1995 and 1996. Then, as now, a Democratic president clashed over spending with a recently installed Republican House majority. Then, as now, Congress failed to fund the government for a full fiscal year, so agencies depended on a series of “continuing resolutions’’ to keep them in business while lawmakers feuded.

When Clinton in late 1995 vetoed a Republican-crafted spending bill, parts of the government closed for six days.

After a brief truce, the parties clashed again. Hundreds of thousands of nonessential federal workers were furloughed for three weeks, from mid-December to early January. (Some workers eventually received back pay for missed days). National parks, museums, passport offices, and other agencies closed.

Each party blamed the other. But public opinion soon swung toward Clinton and the Democrats. House Speaker Newt Gingrich didn’t help himself by suggesting he had triggered the shutdown out of pique because Clinton had made him ride in the back of Air Force One. Friends called it the biggest mistake of Gingrich’s career.

Republican lore portrays the 1995-96 shutdown as a political disaster. Lawmakers who lived through it vowed: Never again.

“There’s absolutely no way’’ House Republicans will allow a shutdown, said Representative Jerry Lewis of California. “It was a big mistake when Newt did it.’’

The latest congressional showdown centers on spending for the current fiscal year, which is one-third over.

House Republicans have promised to cut $60 billion from “discretionary nonsecurity’’ programs. Those programs make up only 12 percent of the entire budget, and they exclude items such as the military, Social Security, and Medicare.

Obama and congressional Democrats say such cuts would be reckless and damaging at a time when the economic recovery remains fragile. They want to freeze discretionary, nonsecurity spending at current levels for five years. That would slow or halt the typical annual climb, but Republicans say it’s not enough.

The Democratic-controlled Senate, which has begun a week-long recess, won’t have time before the March 4 deadline to take up the $60 billion cost-cutting bill the House just completed.

In early March, senators will devise a short-term spending proposal that is likely to reflect the Democrats’ demands to hold spending at current levels. Republican senators could use procedural maneuvers to block a vote on the Democrats’ proposal, which probably would trigger a government shutdown.

If Senate Republicans let a Democratic-crafted temporary spending bill reach the House, then a big decision will confront Speaker John Boehner and his sometimes unpredictable Republican caucus, particularly dozens of Tea Party-backed newcomers.