Ending the shutdown: So many options, so little political will

McClatchy Washington BureauOctober 3, 2013 

— With no end in sight to the partial government shutdown, the prevailing questions across the country are when and how does this bad movie end?

Veterans of the 1995 Clinton/Gingrich shutdown say they see some ways out of this seemingly intractable situation that could enable congressional Republicans, Democrats and the White House to reopen the government and save face without the perception that each totally caved in to the other side’s demands.

None of the scenarios are easy, they say, and would require a will that players in this drama have thus far not shown. Former Rep. Jim Nussle, an Iowa Republican and House Budget Committee chairman who was lieutenant to then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., is in a pool guessing when the shutdown will end. He declined to reveal his estimate, other than to say it’s lengthy.

“Given the current hand . . . I will tell you that this is as challenging as I’ve ever seen,” said Nussle, who also served as the director of the Office of Management and Budget under President George W. Bush. “We have people in Washington who are really good at getting attention, not at governing.”

But they have to do something. Here are some of the options:

– Republicans in the House of Representatives relent and allow a clean short-term continuing resolution to fund the government – without provisions to defund or kill the Affordable Care Act – to reach the floor for a vote.

In the House, the magic number to passage is 217, and it appears that a clean funding bill could reach that powered by at least 19 votes from moderate Republicans and old bulls in the party who have grown tired of their tea party colleagues.

The willing Republican moderates include Reps. Bill Young of Florida, Peter King and Michael Grimm of New York, Jim Gerlach of Pennsylvania and Devin Nunes of California.

“If you’ve got 30 to 40 Republicans who aren’t willing to open the government, then it’s up to the Republican leadership to find votes to open the government,” said Ray LaHood, a former Republican House member from Illinois. “Essentially, it will come down to the idea that there are a majority of the 435 members of the House that want the government open.”

But House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, thus far has resisted putting a clean funding plan on the floor. To do so, without getting something tangible in return, could further splinter the House Republican caucus, jeopardize Boehner’s speakership, and prompt primary election challenges from tea party and conservative candidates against Republicans who support a clean spending measure, according to political analysts.

“As in ’95, it’s about politics, people’s egos and power,” said LaHood, who was in the House during the 1995 shutdown and left Congress to become President Barack Obama’s first-term transportation secretary.

LaHood said Obama has to make it worth Boehner’s while to move a clean spending plan. One way of doing that is guaranteeing serious talks with Republicans about the health care law, he said.

“But Republicans have to come to the table with some serious ideas on how to fix it, not kill it,” LaHood said. “That’s the way forward.”

However, that proposal could be fraught with political risk for Obama, who’s maintained a “no negotiation” stance during the shutdown. A perceived shift could alienate Capitol Hill Democrats and the party’s voters ahead of next year’s congressional elections.

– Approve short-term spending measures for certain agencies. This would buy Republicans and the White House time to iron out their differences while keeping some key government agencies operating. The Republican-controlled House has tried – and failed – to push through mini spending measures to reopen the National Park Service, the Department of Veterans Affairs, the National Institutes of Health and other agencies. The White House rejected the overtures as “piecemeal efforts,” a sentiment share by Nussle and some other Republicans.

– Revisit a “grand bargain.” Instead of just focusing on a short-term spending deal, Republican congressional leaders and Obama should go long and pursue a multitrillion-dollar package of spending cuts and tax increases that would include revamping the tax code, addressing entitlement programs and altering or replacing the automatic spending cuts known as sequestration.

The downside is that Obama and Boehner couldn’t consummate a grand bargain proposal in 2011. But Robert Bixby, executive director of the bipartisan Concord Coalition, believes the current shutdown and Washington’s functioning from fiscal crisis to fiscal crisis might make a longer-term big deal more enticing.

“If the deal were big enough and worth doing, maybe Boehner could bring it back to the House and pass it with Democratic support,” Bixby said. “It could be a package that appeals to the centers of both parties.”

Former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta agreed.

“The only thing that strikes me as a possible way out is to negotiate on the budget,” said Panetta, who was President Bill Clinton’s White House chief of staff during the 1995 and 1996 shutdowns. “(The White House) isn’t going anywhere on health care. But where both sides can negotiate is on budget differences. It would give both sides some cover.”

Still, Republicans may need something to take to their supporters before even considering a big deal. G. William Hoagland, vice president of the Bipartisan Policy Center, suggested a deal to lower sequester levels from $986 billion to something like $967 billion and Obama agreeing to do something on the medical device tax might be a good faith-building starting point before doing something huge.

“There has to be some small, face-saving outcome for Republicans,” Hoagland said. “I think that’s about as good as it gets right now.”

Addressing the 2.3 percent excise tax on medical devices has bipartisan support. The tax was created to generate nearly $30 billion over 10 years to help pay for the health care law.

“We can work on something, I believe, on the medical tax,” Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., told CNN on Tuesday. “That was one of the proposals from Republicans, as long as we replace the revenue.”

Of course, all of these options are contingent upon all sides having the will to compromise, something that isn’t easy in today’s superheated 24-hour news cycle, according to Paul Begala, a former Clinton adviser.

When Clinton and Gingrich were negotiating, Twitter and Facebook didn’t exist, Fox News and MSNBC weren’t on the air, and conservative talk radio was taking off as a force in American politics.

“The democratization of the media makes things like negotiating harder,” Begala said. “I’m not saying I long for the days of smoke-filled rooms, but. . .”

However, increased media attention shouldn’t be an excuse for elected officials to not work toward reopening the government.

“Republicans, Democrats, everybody – we have too many PR politicians,” Nussle said. “And Obama, he’s got to get dirty like Clinton and Gingrich did and roll up his sleeves. That’s what it means to be a leader.”

Email: wdouglas@mcclatchydc.com; twitter @williamgdouglas

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