Senate Democrats appear increasingly nervous that Republicans intend to force a shutdown of the federal government as a political bargaining tool to force deep cuts in the federal budget. A number of Democratic senators have been warning that a federal shutdown could have dire consequences for the U.S. economy, as well as individual Americans would rely on Social Security, veterans’ benefits, and other federal programs.
Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) used Friday’s surprise drop in the nation’s unemployment rate — down to 9 percent, the lowest level since April 2009 — to urge Republicans to focus more on job-creation solutions, not “extreme political stunts.”
“At this critical juncture, we certainly cannot afford an extreme step like forcing a government shutdown that could send us back into a recession and put Social Security checks, veterans’ benefits and border security at risk,” Reid says. “I hope my Republican colleagues will stop playing with fire, and join us to pass responsible measures that control spending while encouraging growth. Now is the time for common-sense solutions that create jobs and strengthen the middle class, not extreme political stunts.”
Democrats have been worried Republicans intend to force a federal shutdown ever since Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky pointedly refused to take the option off the table in a national interview on NBC’s Meet The Press.
It’s been 15 years since the last federal shutdowns, which also came about over political brinkmanship over spending cuts. At that time, ascendant congressional Republicans, led by then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich, thought a government shutdown would force President Bill Clinton to cave in and accept Draconian budget cuts.
In the end, the opposite happened. Clinton played the moderate, portraying Gingrich and his GOP colleagues as extremists, and won in the court of public opinion.
Democrats note that prominent Republicans and conservatives have been talking for months about a potential shutdown this year.
The Costs of Shutdown
Democrats note that the 1995-1996 shutdowns forced states to pick up the costs for everything from housing federal prisoners to feeding seniors through the Meals on Wheels program. Today, with some 44 states and the District of Columbia projecting budget shortfalls totaling $125 billion, it would be impossible for states to pay the federal government’s bills during a shutdown, they say.
They also note that during the Clinton-era shutdowns, which lasted a total of 26 days, more than 400,000 veterans’ benefits were delayed, $3 billion in American goods were held up by export backlogs, 760,000 American workers went without pay while, federal unemployment benefits ran out for the first time in 60 years, and toxic waste clean-ups and illegal immigration deportation came to a halt.
This year, McConnell describes the March 4 expiration of the continuing resolution currently funding federal operations, and the looming need to raise the federal debt ceiling, as “opportunities” which might spark a fresh federal shutdown.
“Last Sunday, the Republican Leader repeatedly referred to the pending expiration of the CR and the potential breaching of the debt limit as ‘opportunities,’” says Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, the second-highest ranking Democrat in the Senate. “Shutting down the government and defaulting on our debts should not be considered ‘opportunities.’ Risking millions of American jobs should not be considered an ‘opportunity.’ We need to responsibly deal with the deficit, but we should not put the livelihoods of millions of hard-working Americans in the middle of a game of political brinksmanship in Washington.”
To rein in spending and bring down the deficit, Democrats say Republicans need to drop the extreme rhetoric and support a “responsible, two-pronged approach that cuts waste while keeping our economy growing and creating jobs.”
“We are just now beginning to turn the corner towards a recovery.” Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) says. “This would be the exact wrong time to play with fire by shutting down the government.”
The publisher of the news site On The Hill, Scott Nance has covered Congress and the federal government for more than a decade.