Congressional Republicans have a habit of shutting down the federal government whenever they believe some program they view as ideological needs to be defunded. In 2013, conservatives forced a closure of government operations by refusing to vote for any spending bill that had funding for the Affordable Care Act attached to it. A year and a half later, congressional Republicans attempted to defund President Obama’s executive orders on immigration by following the same strategy: inserting a rider into a spending bill for the Department of Homeland Security that would force Democrats to either capitulate or force the shuttering of a major national security agency.
On both occasions, Republicans caved to Democratic resistance and winded up backing away from their original demands. And in both instances, the American people blamed the Republican Party for the fiscal calamity — 53 percent of Americans surveyed thought Republicans were responsible for the sixteen-day government shutdown in 2013. The saga of DHS had the same exact figure: 53 percent would have blamed the GOP Congress if that agency closed, with only 30 percent putting the onus on President Obama.
The Republicans, to be brutally honest, acted like children who were willing to put tens of thousands of federal employees out of work if it provided them a chance to defund a healthcare law that President Obama’s supporters call his principle domestic achievement.
Three years later, we need to just as brutally honest with the other party; this year, the Democrats are the ones playing politics with only three legislative days to go before federal funding runs out.
Normally, Republicans have been loath to negotiate with their Democratic colleagues and have chosen to take a strident, ideological line. The GOP may have eventually backed down after several weeks of pressure, but they weren’t willing to compromise their core principles until the very last moment, when it was absolutely necessary to save their skins. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, however, has been quite deferential to Democrats over negotiations to fund the government past Sept. 30 for another 10 weeks. Minority Leader Harry Reid and his Democratic colleagues have paid him back with stubbornness.
Reid and co. are rightly concerned about the Flint, Mich., water crisis that has been bedeviling that city for over a year. The residents of Flint have been waiting for some assistance from Washington in order to clean up their infrastructure so the water that comes out of their taps is safe to drink and bathe in. If the Senate hadn’t passed an altogether different bill providing $220 million for the Flint crisis, Democrats in Congress would be absolutely within their rights to demand that assistance be included in the federal spending bill. But that simply isn’t the case here. Money has been approved, and the money will likely be signed into law in short order.
Democrats demanded that the ideological riders that were attached to Zika funding be stripped out. McConnell, after first trying to push those riders through the chamber, relented and took them out. Democrats demanded that no ideological, poison pill riders be included in the spending bill. McConnell said “OK” and offered a clean continuing resolution. Democrats then demanded that Republicans in the House address Flint by putting money toward that crisis into another water resources bill. Last night, the GOP leadership met those demands and approved a Flint amendment or floor debate. Yet despite all of these conciliatory moves from a Republican caucus which really doesn’t like being conciliatory, Reid still isn’t backing down —less than 72 hours before the lights go out in the Capitol.
This time, it’s Reid and Senate Democrats who need to take yes for an answer. If Senator McConnell were smart, he would publish an open letter to his Democratic colleagues promising that Flint will indeed receive federal assistance by the end of the year. This would be yet one more assurance to a Democratic caucus that is, let’s face it, playing shutdown politics just as the GOP did several years ago.