How the Washington Showdown Differs from '95

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Bill O'Leary / The Washington Post / Getty Images

Workers erect a fence alongside the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool, which is being restored using funds from the stimulus and other sources

Republicans and Democrats deny that they want to see a government shutdown, but both parties accuse each other of secretly rooting for one. With the federal government perilously close to shuttering on March 4 if an agreement on spending cuts cannot be reached in Congress, neither side appears prepared to make serious concessions. And while a shutdown looms, it has become increasingly apparent that conditions are very different from the last time the government shut down over a partisan budget fight.

In 1995, Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich expected President Bill Clinton, still reeling from a historic trouncing in the midterm elections, to bend to the will of Congress. Instead, Clinton responded with a passionate defense of social programs and turned public opinion against the GOP. This time around, President Barack Obama has been keeping his distance from the debate, allowing the Democrat-controlled Senate to be his party's proxy in the standoff with the Republican House. But Obama's hesitance to engage publicly is not without risk.

Republicans see their recent electoral success as conferring a popular mandate to shrink government, and earlier this month they accused the President of abdicating fiscal leadership when he declined to propose entitlement cuts in his 2012 budget plan.

As Speaker, Gingrich brazenly invoked the prospect of a shutdown as a threat. Sixteen years later, John Boehner, once one of Gingrich's deputies, is taking a gentler approach. His public mantra has been that everyone wants to avoid a government shutdown. If one does happen, Boehner won't leap into it as Gingrich did; he will be pushed by an idealistic new crop of Republican representatives.

Speaker Boehner spent much of the past week trying to convince his freshmen to agree to a short-term extension that would pair a few key cuts with continued funding for the federal government at close to 2010 levels for a few weeks. Although he hasn't sold them on it yet, House Republican aides say they are increasingly confident that this temporary stopgap measure expected to be unveiled later in the week will be passed before March 4, giving Senate and House negotiators more time to work out a long-term deal.

Boehner's temporary measure must be carefully calibrated to appease his freshmen without proposing cuts that Senate Democrats would find transgressive. Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the third-ranking Democrat in the upper chamber, told CNN that any temporary extension must keep government funding roughly unchanged, but it remains to be seen if other Democrats will take a similarly hard line. Either way, the $61 billion in cuts House Republicans called for in their 2011 budget passed Saturday include many provisions that are dead on arrival in the Senate. Proposals to defund health reform, Planned Parenthood and public broadcasting are all nonstarters for Democrats.

In 1995, the government shutdown put some 800,000 "nonessential" federal employees on furlough. New Social Security and Medicare claims were disrupted. National parks, passport agencies and museums were closed. Although benefit checks continued to flow, the military remained on active duty — when the governor of Arizona managed to reopen Grand Canyon National Park using the state's National Guard, there was a public backlash.

Republicans are keenly aware that the last shutdown was a mistake: the public sided with Clinton and it helped him win re-election. "If Republicans shut down government, voters will shut out Republicans," says Mark McKinnon, a former adviser to President George W. Bush. But the Republican freshmen take their small-government mandate seriously and are eager to deliver substantial cuts. "If they can't do it now, what are they going to tell the people back home if they let this opportunity pass by?" asks a senior aide to one such freshman, who believes the odds of a government shutdown are 60% or better. "I don't think you have an unlimited number of [temporary extensions] with this freshmen class. They might grant one or two, but their patience will soon wear thin."

Even if Boehner can broker a compromise by March 4, the bigger debate still looms between the two chambers of Congress and the two parties that are miles apart: What should be cut? How big should the government be? The ultimate winner of this round not only will set funding levels for the next two years, but also will capture the ideological and political momentum going into the 2012 elections.