Democrats are convinced they have the upper hand. The president has maintained that he will not negotiate with Republicans on the funding bill or the debt ceiling — a point he repeated to House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) in a telephone call Friday night. Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) plans to ensure that no bill defunding the health-care law reaches Obama’s desk.
From time to time, the fiscal year has brought partial, temporary shutdowns — nine of them, for instance, between fiscal 1981 and fiscal 1995. But they were over relatively narrow disputes, and none lasted more than three days.
Then-Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) was the first to engineer one as a strategy to wage a broader policy battle, with President Bill Clinton in 1995.
Gingrich and his forces had many advantages in 1995 that today’s Republicans do not. Their party’s standing with voters was stronger, they controlled both houses of Congress, and they were far more united than Republicans are today.
When he began laying plans for a year-end government shutdown, he was still at the height of his influence, after having led the House Republicans through an election that produced their first majority in four decades.
“This is the heart of the revolution,” Gingrich told Time magazine in June 1995.
“He can run the parts of government that are left, or he can run no government,” Gingrich said of Clinton. “Which of the two of us do you think worries more about the government not showing up?”
That year actually produced two shutdowns — one in November lasting five days and a second from mid-December to early January that went on for 21 days.
In the current telling of some conservative groups, the Republicans won that showdown.
That is not a widely held view among those who actually lived through it. They note that the 1995-96 shutdown helped resurrect Clinton’s presidency and put him on the way to a landslide reelection over GOP nominee Bob Dole.
“Prior to the shutdown, it looked as though the Republican nominee was going to be able to defeat Clinton handily. After the shutdown, Dole was clearly behind and struggling,” said Winston, who worked as an aide to Gingrich in the late 1990s. “Looking at any of the survey numbers, the shutdown was clearly a negative for Republicans.”
Nor did it do much to change the trajectory of federal spending, as the Republicans had promised it would.
“We gained almost nothing. It was a rounding error,” said Steve Bell of the Bipartisan Policy Center, who was a longtime top Republican staffer on the Senate Budget Committee. “It was subsumed by the next year’s economic forecast.”
But fewer than one in five of those now serving in the House were around for that earlier standoff.