A question yesterday from CNN reporter Dana Bash clearly got under the skin of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., during a press conference about the partial government shutdown. The House was preparing to pass and send to the Senate a bill that would fund only the National Institutes of Health. “You all talked about children with cancer unable to go to clinical trials,” said Bash. “The House is presumably going to pass a bill that funds at least the NIH. Given what you’ve said, will you at least pass that? And if not, aren’t you playing the same political games that Republicans are?”
Reid squirmed a bit and said the House was obsessed with Obamacare and had no right to pick and choose which parts of government to fund. Bash followed up: “But if you can help one child who has cancer, why wouldn’t you do it?” Reid answered with what must have been a gaffe: “Why would we want to do that?” He then became irritated and said Bash was “irresponsible” for asking the question.
Reid’s struggle for a coherent answer suggests Republicans, who have taken a public relations hit during the shutdown, may have come up with a way to put President Barack Obama and liberals in the Senate on the defensive. It’s being called the “piecemeal approach”: The House passes stand-alone measures to fund veterans benefits, national parks, medical research, and other popular spending programs. They then send those measures to the Senate with no strings attached—nothing about delaying Obamacare’s individual mandate or ending the special treatment of Congress under Obamacare that are the points of contention in the shutdown fight.
The Senate then has the task of either accepting those bills and losing some of the sense of crisis surrounding the partial shutdown or rejecting them and taking on responsibility for the continued closure of popular government programs. The strategy is prompting Obama, Reid, and other Democratic leaders essentially to say “all or nothing” when it comes to government spending, a stance that may not seem reasonable to many Americans. It is taking away from liberals the strategy of using popular government spending to force through all government spending—an approach they used to great effect in previous shutdowns.
Democrats spent the day yesterday denouncing the strategy, but Republicans are hoping that Democrats’ previous actions speak louder than their current words. Democrats themselves pursued the piecemeal approach early this week. Shortly after the partial shutdown began on Tuesday, Congress passed and President Obama signed a bill that ensured military personnel would continue to receive their pay throughout the partial shutdown. Reid apparently thought he and the House had the right at that time to pick and choose one part of government over the others.
It will be interesting to see how far Republicans pursue this strategy, and whether it changes public perceptions of the partial shutdown. They could potentially set liberals against each other by offering a bill that would start paying essential (and only essential) government employees and give them back pay for already-completed shutdown work. Reid and Obama would either have to accept the bill or veto the paychecks of a key liberal constituency—government workers.
Nobody knows whether the targeted approach will change the dynamics of the shutdown fight and help the GOP reach its policy goals, but the reaction of Reid and other Democrats suggests that they fear it will.