Republicans and Democrats deny that they want to see a government shutdown, but both parties accuse each other of secretly rooting for one. With the federal government perilously close to shuttering on March 4 if an agreement on spending cuts cannot be reached in Congress, neither side appears prepared to make serious concessions. And while a shutdown looms, it has become increasingly apparent that conditions are very different from the last time the government shut down over a partisan budget fight.
In 1995, Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich expected President Bill Clinton, still reeling from a historic trouncing in the midterm elections, to bend to the will of Congress. Instead, Clinton responded with a passionate defense of social programs and turned public opinion against the GOP. This time around, President Barack Obama has been keeping his distance from the debate, allowing the Democrat-controlled Senate to be his party’s proxy in the standoff with the Republican House. But Obama’s hesitance to engage publicly is not without risk.
Republicans see their recent electoral success as conferring a popular mandate to shrink government, and earlier this month they accused the President of abdicating fiscal leadership when he declined to propose entitlement cuts in his 2012 budget plan.
As Speaker, Gingrich brazenly invoked the prospect of a shutdown as a threat. Sixteen years later, John Boehner, once one of Gingrich’s deputies, is taking a gentler approach. His public mantra has been that everyone wants to avoid a government shutdown. If one does happen, Boehner won’t leap into it as Gingrich did; he will be pushed by an idealistic new crop of Republican representatives.