Why Republicans Can’t Quit The Government Shutdown Game

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November 18, 2014 6:00 a.m.

The government shutdown battles are back — again.

The specter of President Barack Obama using his executive authority to temporarily shield as many as 5 million Americans from the threat of deportation has ignited a strong backlash from the GOP’s tea party wing. Seeing no better option to stop Obama, these conservatives, led by Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) and 59 House Republicans, are pushing for a head-on confrontation that would end in a government shutdown unless he backs down.

“There is a growing momentum to the idea,” Sessions told TPM and one other reporter in the Capitol on Monday. “I think it’s important that Congress use what power it has to resist this presidential overreach.”

One top GOP aide working in support of the Sessions strategy said efforts by some Republicans to pass a long-term government funding bill that doesn’t block Obama’s immigration action was “cratering, fast and furiously.” A senior Democratic aide said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) and House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) had been having discussions about a long-term funding bill but recently the Speaker’s office appeared to be backing away.

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Boehner told reporters on Thursday that “all options are on the table” to stop Obama from acting unilaterally on immigration, including the threat of a government shutdown. A half-dozen GOP senators TPM spoke to on Monday would not rule out the idea of using federal funding as leverage to stop Obama.


House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY). (AP Photo)

“I don’t think the president ought to grant amnesty in any executive order,” Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-GA) told TPM. “Both parties need to sit on the table and work it out, but if he’s going to go his own way then we have to use whatever tools we have to use.”

There are some important parallels to the 2013 fight over Obamacare that led to a 16-day shutdown and left Republicans wounded. The establishment wing prefers to avoid a shutdown and conservative lawmakers retort it would be Obama’s fault if their strategy led to a lapse in funding. Then, as now, Obama is deeply committed to his initiative, enjoys strong Democratic support, and has vowed not to back down. Today’s climate holds some similarities to the 1995 and 1996 shutdown, when the GOP also lost those battles.

The GOP was hardest hit by the 2013 shutdown, which also ended with them backing down and funding Obamacare along with the rest of the federal government. The GOP’s approval rating plunged by 10 points to a record low, and it took about a year for them to recover the losses, according to Gallup surveys.

So, why are conservatives returning to the precipice once again?

Three key dynamics explain this seemingly strange tendency.

The Republican base is hungry for confrontation with Obama. A Pew poll released last week found that 66 percent of Republicans want leaders to “stand up” to Obama, “even if less gets done in Washington”; just 32 percent said the party should “work with Obama” even if it disappoints some GOP supporters. The party’s desire for confrontation is slightly higher than it was in 2010.

In the case of immigration, this tendency has been heightened by the GOP’s crushing victories in the midterm election. Many Republican voters feel that the public would support their party in a confrontation after they ran against Obama, including his plans for executive action on immigration, and won decisively.

“The president, who said his policies were under referendum — they were. And they were rejected,” Sen. Jerry Moran (R-KS), the chair of the Senate GOP’s campaign arm, told TPM. “The president doesn’t seem to have listened to the voters in the election, and immigration — and him acting unilaterally — is evidence of that.”

“When the Republicans have the majority — let me say it differently, when Congress is functioning again — then I think the opportunity to use the power of the purse strings is appropriate,” Moran said.

The tendency is accentuated in the House, where many Republicans represent gerrymandered conservative districts which Democrats have little chance of winning. What these members worry about most is primary challenges from the right, and so they hew toward confrontation.

Many Republican voters see illegal immigration as an existential threat to the U.S. Immigration and Obamacare trigger similarly profound anxieties among the tea party base. Both are seen as defining battles for the soul of the country, according to an extensive 2013 study by Democracy Corps. The study said these Republicans believe Obama wants to legalize millions of undocumented immigrants in order to create a larger base for the Democratic Party and throw conservatism into the dustbin of American history.


Rep. Steve King speaks at a rally to build a fence along the U.S./Mexican border near Palominas, Ariz. on May 27, 2006. (AP Photo/Khampha Bouaphanh)

“Congress has a constitutional duty to fund programs it thinks are good and not fund programs it thinks are bad,” Sessions said. “This would simply be to fund the entire government except not fund a discrete activity that Congress thinks is a problem.”

Exacerbating GOP anxieties is the fact that Obama intends to act without congressional approval after the House killed reform. While Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush also used similar executive powers to protect broad groups of undocumented immigrants from deportation, Obama’s use of executive power in the face of congressional dysfunction has infuriated the Republican base and sparked cries of an “imperial presidency.”

But some Republicans are skeptical. John Feehery, an immigration reform supporter and former top aide to House Speaker Dennis Hastert, cautioned that the strategy wouldn’t work because Obama wouldn’t sign a bill that overturns his immigration actions.

“We need to be real careful on this,” Feehery told TPM. “I don’t think the first thing we should be doing is having a government shutdown as soon as we take over. That’s not good optics.”

Republican leaders tend to stoke the GOP base’s anger for their political benefit, but it sometimes turns against them. In the run-up to the 2013 shutdown, House Speaker John Boehner had spent years fanning the flames of dissent against Obamacare, which included dozens of repeal votes in the House and frequent expressions of outrage labeling it an unconstitutional law that will ruin the country’s health care system. Then, when the tea party pushed him to take extraordinary measures in 2013 to stop it, he told them it wasn’t worth it. But that rang hollow to them and so they turned their anger against Republican leadership. It was put-up-or-shut-up time, and Boehner was forced to put up.


House Speaker John Boehner (AP Photo)

“I am tired of funding Republicans who campaign against Obamacare then refuse to fight,” conservative activist and Fox News contributor Erick Erickson lamented during the the 2013 shutdown, when Republicans signaled they would back down and fund Obamacare. “So what good is the GOP?”

Now history might repeat itself on immigration. Ever since Obama said in July he would act unilaterally if the House fails to act, Boehner has warned that he would be cementing a “legacy of lawlessness” if he follows through, dubbing his plans “amnesty by executive action.” He has held one House vote to overturn Obama’s 2012 executive order protecting DREAMers, and a second one to prohibit him from shielding other immigrants. Then, like now, Boehner has served up red meat for the base, leading to demands that he use his political capital and constitutional prerogatives to thwart Obama.

And top Republicans aren’t ruling out using government funding as leverage.

“It’s a great concern,” Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT) told TPM, referring to Obama’s immigration plans. Asked if it’ll lead to a funding standoff, he said, “We’ll have to see. We’ll just have to see. It’s pretty much up to leadership.”

There are many reasons to remain skeptical that Republican leaders will allow another shutdown. But one way or another, the battle will be a major early test for incoming Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s (R-KY) promise issued the day after he got elected. “Let me make it clear,” he said. “There will be no government shutdowns and no default of the national debt.”

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