Republicans were hammered over the 1995-96 government shutdowns, losing House seats in the next election and boosting President Clinton’s sagging approval ratings.
They shot themselves in the foot again with the 16-day government shutdown in 2013 over Obamacare, although their record-low public approval ratings rallied in time to dominate the 2014 midterm election.
Now it appears the party is heading toward another budget-related standoff, this time over immigration policy and the Homeland Security Department, which is scheduled to run out of funding Saturday.
Some Republican stalwarts fear another government shutdown, even a partial one, could deliver a deep political wound to the party.
“It irritates the hell out of me,” Tom Ridge, the first Homeland Security secretary and a former two-term Pennsylvania governor, said in an interview. “I think it is political folly. I think it is bad policy. I think the political repercussions could be very severe. And on top of that, the men and women of Homeland Security deserve better.”
But buoyed by a Texas federal judge’s order last week to temporarily halt the president’s immigration plan, other Republicans are betting heavily that this time things will end differently for the party.
They predict Democrats will shoulder the blame if the Homeland Security Department runs out of money and see no reason to drop their demand that renewed funding include amendments blocking President Obama from implementing his program to defer deportation for millions of immigrants in the country illegally.
“We should be messaging to the American people that this president and the Senate Democrats are putting 5 million illegals ahead of the security of the United States,” Rep. Raul R. Labrador (R-Idaho) said in a recent discussion with fellow House conservatives. “We should be talking about nothing else.”
House conservatives say they are prepared to do whatever it takes to stop what they describe as the latest example of Obama’s executive overreach. “Is it an uncomfortable position to be in to have to choose between border security and the Constitution? Absolutely,” said Rep. Mick Mulvaney (R-S.C.).
House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) said this month he was “certainly” prepared to see a lapse in funding for the Homeland Security Department if the Senate could not pass the House-approved bill.
But it’s politically problematic for Republicans to disrupt operations for a department created after the Sept. 11 attacks to fight domestic terrorism, protect borders and monitor airports, particularly at a time when Americans are increasingly concerned about Islamic State and other terrorist groups.
Some in the GOP have downplayed the potential effect of a Homeland Security shutdown, noting that 86% of the department’s employees are viewed as “essential” and would be required to continue working, albeit with no pay.
“I’m just not that scared of sticking to principles and fulfilling campaign promises that we made back home,” said Rep. Curt Clawson (R-Fla.).
Hoping to increase pressure on Republicans, Obama plans to hold a town hall meeting on immigration Wednesday in Miami. Homeland Security officials and Democrats have warned that even a temporary lapse in funding would put Americans at risk and block needed money to protect borders and bolster the Secret Service.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Friday that as Republicans begin flying back to Washington, he hoped they would look Transportation Security Administration agents in the eye and understand that “they’re not going to get paid on time unless members of Congress step up to do their jobs.”
Republican leaders understand the political risks of a potential shutdown, particularly now that they control both chambers of Congress. One of the first vows Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell made after the November election: “No government shutdowns.”
Though a shutdown may be popular with the GOP’s conservative base, polling indicates Americans overwhelmingly oppose the strategy.
A CNN poll conducted Feb. 12-15 found that 53% of Americans would blame congressional Republicans in the event of a shutdown, whereas 30% would blame the president and 13% would blame both.
A CBS News/New York Times poll conducted Feb. 13-17 found that 60% of Americans believed that funding for the department should be dealt with separately from the immigration debate, while 29% said they supported including immigration-related provisions in the Homeland Security funding bill.
The Senate on Monday will hold a fourth procedural vote on the House funding bill that includes the conditions to block the president’s new immigration actions and halt his 2012 Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which shielded from deportation young immigrants brought to the country illegally by their parents.
Republican aides would not discuss how either chamber would proceed if, as expected, Senate Democrats remain united in blocking the bill.
Conservative strategists say they will try to win over public opinion by highlighting that some Senate Democrats who initially expressed opposition to the president’s immigration actions have refused to support the Republican bill.
Ridge questioned whether such a tactic would work.
“I don’t care how many accusatory fingers are pointed at Democrats in the Senate,” Ridge said. “Outside the Beltway, do you know who’s going to be held responsible — and God forbid — [if] something were to happen? It would be the Republican Party.”