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Associated Press/Photo by Jacquelyn Martin

Shutdown showdown

Politics | With a budget deadline looming, House Republicans insist that historic cuts are the right response to historic deficits, debts, and spending levels

Issue: "The rise of localism," March 12, 2011

WASHINGTON-With the federal government days away from running out of money and shutting down, the so-called war over federal spending in late February became mostly a war of words.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid on Feb. 22, George Washington's birthday, told House Speaker John Boehner to "stop drawing lines in the sand" over government funding. Republican Boehner responded by telling Democrat Reid to "stop creating more uncertainty by spreading fears."

What lent gravity to the verbal sparring was a fast-approaching budget deadline: March 4. If a bill to fund the government through the rest of the fiscal year isn't passed by that date, then parts of the federal government deemed nonessential will shut down. But even as the deadline loomed, the last full week in February didn't contain much face-to-face negotiating on Capitol Hill. The reason: Lawmakers were back home in the midst of a week-long recess.

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Washington's birthday began with Reid offering an "olive branch" in the form of yet another temporary, stopgap-funding measure to allow the government to remain open at current spending levels. But Reid's offer of a $41 billion reduction in federal spending was a non-starter to Boehner after the Republican-led House had just passed $61.5 billion in federal cuts.

Admitting that the two sides have not negotiated "at all," Reid bemoaned the fact that too much time has been spent talking to the media. "We can't do this thorough the press," Reid, in Nevada, said while on a conference call with reporters. "We want to sit down and talk . . . and act like adults."

But the call for maturity came with a continued goading of Republicans to shut down the government. Democrats have become amateur historians during this debate, recalling the last time the government shut down in 1994. Then, like now, the Republicans had just taken control of the House. But then-Speaker Newt Gingrich's gambit didn't go so well for the GOP. The shutdown bolstered President Bill Clinton at a time when his reelection prospects for 1996 looked bleak.

Democrats are hoping that history repeats itself. They are betting that voters will blame a new shutdown on the Republicans and help President Barack Obama and company regain political momentum after last November's shellacking.

But many conservatives believe that this is a different time-that a bulk of Americans are not only willing to see a smaller federal government, they are insisting on it.

That is why freshman Rep. Joe Walsh, R-Ill., can proclaim during a recent district meeting with constituents at a coffeehouse: "If my Republican leadership asks me to vote for a budget, even a two-week budget, that doesn't have spending cuts, I will say no and I will shut down government."

Freshman lawmakers like Walsh, emboldened by the grassroots upheaval, are a major reason why the House approved the $61.5 billion in budget cuts. House Republican leaders initially offered packages ranging from $32 billion to $40 billion in spending reductions. But freshman lawmakers balked and the leadership blinked: "It is not far enough, fast enough," exclaimed freshman Rep. Bill Huizenga, R-Mich., who noted that many new members campaigned using the GOP pledge to cut $100 billion from federal spending. "If we start mucking it up with too many D.C. numbers, people are going to say, 'Hey, wait a minute.' We are going to be judged."

The $61.5 billion is the largest reduction in non-defense discretionary spending in history, but fiscal conservatives point out that it follows a historic increase in spending over the last few years. For that reason, even the $61.5 billion figure wasn't enough for some members of the Republican caucus: 147 Republicans supported an unsuccessful bid to add $22 billion more in cuts.

The internal Republican squabble about how deep to make the federal cuts highlighted a week-long congressional debate over the nation's spending habits that preceded the Reid-Boehner verbal battle. The arguments ran from the serious (federal funding for abortion) to the absurd (a failed vote to cut NASCAR sponsorships paid for by the military.)

Offering probably the best C-SPAN viewing since last year's healthcare fracas, the floor posturing didn't end until nearly dawn on Feb. 19. As Friday evening turned into Saturday morning, some lawmakers slept in the Speaker's Lobby just off of the House chamber. The only bipartisan cheers occurred when the Republican leadership announced, at around 2 a.m., that the final vote would occur in about an hour.

But those cheers would have been groans if lawmakers had known that more than two more hours of debate still waited. When the gavel finally fell to end the session, at approximately 4:30 a.m., not a single Democrat had voted for the spending reductions.

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