Top Republicans are gearing up for a showdown against President Obama over the health-care law, which could take place if they win majorities in Congress in November.
They say they are ready to push the issue to the brink – forcing a possible government shutdown, much like when Newt Gingrich and Bill Clinton’s budget feud stopped government operations in 1995. Then, Gingrich lost the P.R. war and much of his political momentum in the fight. Now, the GOP is hoping Obama will catch the blame.
A 2011 showdown could happen if Republicans reclaim power – but not supermajorities — in Congress. They wouldn’t have the power to fully repeal the new health-care law but could try to pass spending bills that decline to fund, and thus implement, Obamacare. At the very least, with power over a single chamber of Congress they could refuse to pass a spending bill funding the health-care law. The president would likely veto any appropriations bills that don’t fund his hard-fought, signature accomplishment.
What happens next is a high-stakes game of chicken that could shape the public’s view of party leaders for years to come.
Gingrich, the Republican leader when the GOP took on Bill Clinton in 1995, now defends the shutdown that, by his own account, is universally viewed as a low point of his tenure as speaker of the House.
“Everybody thinks [shutting down the government] was a big mistake. They’re exactly wrong,” former speaker of the House Newt Gingrich told reporters on Tuesday, “part of the reason we got reelected was our base thought we were serious. And they thought we were serious because when it came to a showdown we didn’t flinch.”
Gingrich urged Republicans not to blink in a showdown with Obama. “If the president vetoes the appropriations bill, you re-pass it … The only person who can shut down the government is the president. If you’re prepared to pass the appropriations bill, he has to decide to veto the bill you have passed,” Gingrich said.
The issue is sensitive because Gingrich’s 1995 shutdown was a disaster. Then, he complained about Clinton’s “snub” on Air Force One in seating him and Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole at the back of the plane.
“A lot of this is in the handling, and frankly it wasn’t handled very well the first time,” former Republican Rep. Tom Davis, a key moderate party figure and president of the Main Street Partnership, told The Daily Caller. “The Republican message wasn’t very well honed. Mondays and Thursdays Republicans would get up and say, ‘We shut the government down, we’re gonna keep it shut down until the president gives in,’ Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Fridays we said, ‘The president shut us down, he won’t sign the appropriations bills, it’s terrible.’”
Still, Davis – who has often criticized conservative hard-liners for pushing the GOP too far to the right — said, “Newt is onto something when he says, ‘We don’t have to fund it.’ You can send an appropriations bill without funding for health care and if the president doesn’t sign it, it’s a question of who’s the public gonna side with?
“If it’s done strategically, correctly, you can send a bill to the president and you put the onus on him to sign it … it’s a P.R. war … shutting the government down, you never like it, but it’s a question of who gets blamed,” Davis said.
A key distinction between then and now, Gingrich and Davis both said is that Obama’s health-care law is unpopular.
“The president’s got to go to the country and convince the country that your failure to spend money on a program that has a 20 point margin of disapproval” is a bad thing, Gingrich said.
In contrast, in 1995 the GOP was fighting for Medicare cuts. “We wanted seniors to pay more out of Medicare. I think we were right to do that, we just weren’t in a very popular position,” Davis said.
Republican leaders in the House and Senate have already vowed to try to at least defund Obamacare if they gain power.
“It’s going to take appropriated funds to actually come through the process to fund the hiring of the new employees, to create these new bureaucracies, I can’t imagine that a Republican Congress is gonna give this P]president the money to begin this process,” House Minority Leader John Boehner, Ohio Republican, told FoxNews.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has been less specific on defunding the health-care law, but has called for repeal.
Though the calls for defunding health care are focusing attention on a shutdown scenario, few lawmakers would talk on the record about it.
A spokesman for Boehner said it’s too early to think about shutting down the government: “There are a few too many ‘what-ifs’ in that question to speculate.”