Even before much of the federal government shut down at midnight Monday, the players were already staking out their positions in the battle to come: the fight over who was at fault.
President Obama argued that Republicans were to blame, for using a budget bill as a means of extortion to roll back health-care reform. No, the GOP shot back, it was Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) who were responsible, for refusing to negotiate.
The heated back-and-forth reflected a recognition by both sides of the importance of winning the messaging war after the first government shutdown in 17 years. This is not just a typical partisan spat — the outcome could determine which party has momentum heading into coming fights over issues such as the debt ceiling and immigration law, as well as next year’s congressional elections.
Right now, the challenge is steepest for the GOP, which faces a hardening public perception that it is primarily to blame for setting the crisis in motion.
A Washington Post-ABC News poll released Monday showed that a fed-up public disapproves most of all of congressional Republicans, who have sought to use a short-term budget bill to defund or delay Obama’s signature health-care law.
Twenty-six percent of Americans approve of how congressional Republicans have handled the budget negotiations, while 34 percent approve of the efforts of Democratic lawmakers and 41 percent approve of Obama’s handling of the situation.
The poll, conducted Wednesday through Sunday, found that the GOP’s standing was undermined by its weakness among independents, just one in five of whom approve of its handling of the budget standoff.
Republicans scrambled Monday to turn the tables, lobbing a series of arguments about why Democrats were to blame.
They started the day arguing that the Senate was not moving fast enough to consider a measure the House passed early Sunday that paired stopgap funding of the government with a one-year delay of the health-care law. Once the Senate rejected that bill, GOP leaders accused Democrats of protecting the Affordable Care Act, commonly known as Obamacare, at the expense of keeping the government running.
By Monday evening, they appeared to settle on the argument that Democrats were at fault for failing to compromise.
“I just think it’s outrageous that Harry Reid will not sit down and negotiate about something that’s troubling to a lot of Americans, and that’s the implementation of the new health-care law,” Rep. Patrick J. Tiberi (R-Ohio), a close ally of House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), told reporters.
During a speech on the Senate floor, Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) accused Obama of being “absolutely allergic to doing his job.”
“We know the president has been eager to negotiate with the president of Iran about a very serious issue, Iran’s nuclear aspirations, but he won’t talk to the speaker of the House of Representatives or the Republican leader of the U.S. Senate,” Cornyn said.
Republican leaders are all too aware of how they came to be seen as the losers during the last government shutdown, in the winter of 1995 and 1996. At the time, the Clinton administration argued that House Speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.) and his Republican caucus were too extreme.
“We just repeated that over and over again until it sunk in,” said Democratic strategist Mike McCurry, who was White House press secretary at the time.
Late Monday afternoon, Obama struck a similar tone, excoriating GOP lawmakers in remarks at the White House.
“Right now, House Republicans continue to tie funding of the government to ideological demands like limiting a woman’s access to contraception or delaying the Affordable Care Act, all to save face after making some impossible promises to the extreme right wing of their party,” Obama said.
He added, “You don’t get to extract a ransom for doing your job, for doing what you’re supposed to be doing anyway, or just because there’s a law there that you don’t like.”
Reid echoed that theme, placing responsibility on Boehner’s shoulders. “It will be a Republican government shutdown — that’s pure and simple,” Reid said before the midnight deadline.
John Feehery, who ran the communications operation under J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) when he was House speaker, acknowledged that the GOP could be hurt in the short term. But he said the impact in next year’s midterm elections would be negligible because most House Republicans represent safe, solidly red districts.
“I don’t think anyone’s going to lose their seat because they stood up to Barack Obama,” Feehery said.
Democrats could also end up sharing some of the blame, he said, because they control the Senate and the White House.
Glen Bolger, a leading Republican pollster, said in a memo Monday that the party should tell the public that it effectively offered a compromise by backing down from plans to “kill Obamacare” to merely “delaying it a year.”
“That’s a pretty big move and is worthy of negotiation, not sneering rejection,” he wrote. “Obama’s refusal to negotiate and compromise needs to be hammered home. The press won’t cover it unless we say it.”
Many GOP lawmakers quickly adopted that argument.
Rep. Marlin A. Stutzman (R-Ind.) told reporters Monday that “the only person who’s not negotiating” was Reid.
“He doesn’t want to deal with our debt. He doesn’t want to deal with our deficit,” Stutzman said. “When we have must-pass bills, that’s the time we have to force something to happen.”
Democrats fired back that the impasse was the fault of hard-line conservatives.
“Because tea party Republicans didn’t get their way, they have decided to take their ball and go home,” said Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio).
GOP pollster David Winston, who advises the House Republican leadership, said it will be hard for either party to emerge unscathed.
“A government shutdown is the moral equivalent of 52-card pickup, so it’s going to be bad for everybody,” Winston said. “Ultimately, people elect folks to govern, and when you have a shutdown, you don’t have governing.”