What neither man explained was how a shutdown would work, and what the consequences would be -- even if Republicans chose to target health care reform narrowly.
"It was a mess frankly, and devastating to the civil service," said Donna Shalala, who served as Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services during the last government shutdown, which ran from December 16, 1995 through January 6, 1996. "It seems to me it's un-American."
"Almost all employees are sent home," says former Labor Department Secretary Robert Reich, who served alongside Shalala. "Most have no idea when they'll be paid again."
According to a 2004 report of the Congressional Research Service, "Government shutdowns have necessitated the furloughing of several hundred thousand federal employees and affect all sectors of the economy."
The Department of Labor would likely not be spared in a fight over health care reform.
Republicans know they can't repeal the health care law, at least not anytime soon. But they've pledged repeatedly that they'll do all they can to, in the words of House Minority Whip Eric Cantor, "ensure that a trillion dollar take over of our health care in this country does not occur." Their weapon of choice is money. If they retake the House and/or the Senate, they promise to defund "every bit of the regulations process," in Cantor's words.
But just as President Obama can veto a bill calling for the health care law to be repealed, he can veto appropriations legislation that starves his signature achievement of the dollars it will need to prosper. The target then would be the annual appropriations bill that funds the Departments of Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education. If Republicans don't offer Obama enough money to run those departments, and he vetoes the legislation, all hell can break loose.
"Only a few necessary employees (including the cabinet secretaries) remain to make sure absolutely essential tasks are carried out," Reich adds, "but all inspections, grant programs, enforcement actions, litigation, and business advisory services stop."
The first, and most immediate effect of a shutdown is furloughs -- hundreds of thousands of workers sent home without pay. That has ripple effects across the country.
Shalala ran down the list of functions that would be stopped.
"Social Security checks, Medicare reimbursements...welfare checks to the state, Medicaid checks to the state."
"HHS was given a lot of money for implementing the new health care plan, and it would be hard to do without the money," she added. Together, that one appropriation accounts for a huge amount of the federal budget, acording to Shalala. "[we're talking] almost half of the budget of the federal government. That's like close down the government."
During the 1995-1996 shutdown, according to CRS, "[n]New patients were not accepted into clinical research at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Clinical Center; the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ceased disease surveillance (information about the spread of diseases, such as AIDS and flu, were unavailable); hotline calls to NIH concerning diseases were not answered; and toxic waste clean-up work at 609 sites stopped, resulting in 2,400 "Superfund" workers being sent home."
To make matters worse, the economy today is in much worse shape than it was in 15 years ago. The impact of employees out of work, and beneficiaries without checks, will hit the country much harder in the next year than it did under President Clinton. "It would stop all new enrollees into the [Social Security] system," Shalala said.
"It bounces through: it's grocery stores, it's farms," she said -- and the list goes on. "It bounces through when people don't have money at that scale."