You don't need to tell John Boehner about the lethal damage a government shutdown can do to his party; he's seen it firsthand. In November 1995, Boehner was a young lieutenant to the mercurial Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who was trying to jam huge GOP budget cuts down the throat of the Clinton White House. Congressional Republicans believed the public supported the cuts on their merits but worried that Gingrich's public antics were costing them the fight. Many were furious after Gingrich complained about his seat assignment on Air Force One, implying that the snub had hardened his bargaining position on the budget. With the media mocking Gingrich as a crybaby, frustrated Republicans approached Boehner with a simple request: Tell Newt to shut up. But the damage was done.
When the resulting budget standoff shut down the federal government, closing national parks and delaying veterans' benefits, it was a fiasco for the GOP. Now Boehner is House Speaker, and the House's budget-slashing Republicans particularly the Tea Party freshmen are on a collision course with the Obama White House over spending cuts that could lead to the first government shutdown since 1995. To hear some Republicans tell it, they have learned from Gingrich the importance of not being a jerk and believe they'll have the upper hand this time. Maybe so. The coming weeks will reveal whether the Tea Party has the pulse of the country or whether it has disastrously overreached.
The battle lines were drawn on Feb. 19, when the Republican House approved $61 billion in budget cuts, which Democrats say will gut essential programs. If no compromise is reached by March 4, the government will run out of money, sending thousands of federal employees home. (Vital functions, such as the military and Postal Service, would be unaffected.)
It's possible Republicans have more leverage this time around. The budget deficit in 1995 was $164 billion. This year it will hit nearly $1.5 trillion. The bank bailouts and the $862 billion stimulus plan convinced many voters that government simply can't stop throwing money around. Boehner has proved to be an anti-Gingrich: humble where Gingrich swaggered, pragmatic where Gingrich was ideological. Gingrich framed his budget fight with Bill Clinton as a grand matter of American renewal. Boehner has a simpler diagnosis: "We're broke," he says.
But that hardly means we're about to see the bare-bones government of Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann's dreams. While Republicans think they have a mandate to cut, Democrats think plenty of voters were casting protest votes over the economy and perhaps Barack Obama's health care plan. And spending cuts are always more popular in the abstract than in fact. The image of a government that lavishes most of its money on foreign aid and bridges to nowhere is wrong. Clinton understood this and hammered Republicans by singling out specific programs that would suffer, like education and Medicaid.
Some Republicans cling to the notion that Obama is not as effective a partisan fighter as Clinton was. But he doesn't need to be. Unlike in 1995, Republicans control just one chamber of Congress, which means Obama has Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid to block for him. Sure enough, as the budget showdown has played out this past month, the White House has soared above the partisan fray on Capitol Hill, with the President holding feel-good events around the country to promote his message of "Winning the future."
Finally, an acrimonious shutdown battle may represent a major misread of the public mood. While the Tea Partyers are girding for a good fight, polls show that the public wants less confrontation and more comity. An October Pew poll showed that more voters are unhappy about partisan bickering in Washington than at any time since ... October 1995, just before the last government shutdown.
Boehner has long said he doesn't want a shutdown. But it's not clear that he can dictate terms to the Tea Party freshmen and other budget hawks in his caucus. Boehner has already allowed the House to approve tens of billions of dollars more in cuts than he had originally proposed. And now, under pressure from House members who say they refuse to compromise, he is taking a hard line with Senate Democrats.
Given the results of the last Republican-forced shutdown, it's safe to assume that Boehner's palms are getting a little sweaty. But if the White House should treat him with anything less than total respect, at least he'll know to keep his mouth shut.