Washington Watch: The endgame of the federal government shutdown

Washington Bureau writer Jordan Blum
Washington Bureau writer Jordan Blum

During the August congressional recess, the “defund Obamacare” movement gained momentum as conservative lawmakers held town hall meetings with their core constituencies.

At a town hall meeting in Baton Rouge hosted by Sen. David Vitter, R-La., the mere mention of “Obamacare” prompted a boisterous chant from the crowd to “Shut down the government!”

Ask and you shall receive.

The Democratic leadership and President Barack Obama maintained from the outset that they would oppose any Affordable Care Act defunding or delaying, especially as part of a needed budget stopgap, called a continuing resolution, to avoid a partial government shutdown.

Vitter and Reps. Steve Scalise, R-Jefferson; Bill Cassidy, R-Baton Rouge; and John Fleming, R-Minden, all signed onto letters asking the Republican leadership to oppose any spending bill and continuing resolution that funded the health care law.

Eventually, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, caved to the wishes of the tea party Republican effort and House Republicans refused to support any budget stopgap that did not at least delay Obamacare.

The Democratic-controlled Senate, including Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., held firm and rejected any delay or defund efforts, repeatedly approving only a “clean” budget stopgap that included much of the sequester-level spending cuts that went into effect earlier this year.

And here we are nearly a week into the partial government shutdown and hundreds of thousands of federal employees are furloughed, and the economy is being impacted. The Oct. 17 government default date looms unless Congress approves a debt ceiling increase to pay the bills on money the government has already spent. A default could have catastrophic effects on the world economy.

Neither a majority of Republicans nor Democrats are budging yet. The GOP demands concessions and Democrats refuse to negotiate — as they say — with a gun to their head.

Reopen the government and then “grand bargain” budget negotiations can move forward. Senate Republicans have blocked overall budget negotiations from moving to a conference committee for six months.

We now live in a world where members of Congress are pushing Twitter hashtag phrases. The GOP says “#LetsTalk and negotiate during the shutdown”; Democrats say “#JustVote and pass a clean budget stopgap to first reopen the government.” Democrats are trying to round up enough GOP House votes to pass legislation that was originally proposed by Republicans to reopen the government at sequester-level spending.

The posturing continues. Republicans jumped on a quote Friday by an unnamed senior administration official, who told The Wall Street Journal that “we are winning” and that “it doesn’t really matter to us” how long the shutdown lasts “because what matters is the end result.”

“This isn’t some damn game,” Boehner said Friday. “The American people don’t want their government shut down, and neither do I.”

Obama responded to reporters that “no one is winning” and that House Republicans could reopen the government “right now.”

Previously, Democrats seized on a quote by Rep. Marlin Stutzman, R-Ind. “We’re not going to be disrespected,” Stutzman told The Washington Examiner. “We have to get something out of this. And I don’t know what that even is.”

Democrats took that and argued Republicans are holding the government hostage without even knowing what they are demanding.

Regardless, it now looks like the shutdown will head toward the Oct. 17 default debate.

Many Republicans, such as Rep. Charles Boustany, R-Lafayette, who opposed the government shutdown threat, are uniting on that effort.

Boustany criticized Democrats for not negotiating and said the GOP must “leverage” the sequester budget cuts and the shutdown to “make the best of it … to get a broader deal.”

Had the shutdown been avoided, Republicans could have spent the last week repeatedly criticizing Obamacare for the numerous glitches during the first week of the online health care exchanges.

For the shutdown, Boustany said some Republicans share in the blame.

“I think the speaker had an endgame, but we had too many colleagues who were running all over the map,” Boustany said. “I think there’s some (Republicans) who derailed that plan, and now they’re realizing it was a mistake.”

Jordan Blum is chief of The Advocate’s Washington bureau. His email is jblum@theadvocate.com.