Government shutdown threats aren't new — but this standoff is far different

  • Twice under President Obama, Republican lawmakers precipitated acute crises of governance.
  • Now, as Donald Trump's Washington nears a government shutdown, Republicans accuse Democrats of doing the same thing.

Twice under President Barack Obama, Republican lawmakers precipitated acute crises of governance. Now, as Donald Trump's Washington nears a government shutdown, Republicans accuse Democrats of doing the same thing.

The 2011 debt crisis and 2013 government shutdown bear a surface similarity to the current impasse. In the first two, a Republican-controlled House demanded policy concessions in return for raising the federal debt limit and keeping the government open; now the Democratic minority wants concessions.

But the differences in circumstances outweigh the similarities — and not just because Republican now hold undivided control of the government. In reality, Democrats are not doing the same thing.

In 2011, having won control of the House the previous November, Republicans demanded massive spending cuts as a condition of preventing a government default. By the time Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell engineered an escape strategy, the U.S. suffered the first-ever downgrade of its credit rating.

Republicans eventually forced Obama and his party to accept massive spending cuts — but those cuts proved so much deeper than American voters would support that they've been rolled back. Republican leaders themselves no longer support them.

In 2013, Republicans forced a shutdown as part of their quest to wipe out Obamacare. Since Obama remained president and Democrats still controlled the Senate, they had no prospect of success.

Nor was public consensus behind them, though overall public opinion on Obamacare was marginally negative. As the shutdown dragged on, Americans blamed Republicans more than Democrats, and Republicans eventually surrendered.

Thus Republicans had twice halted government over objectives they lacked the political support and institutional power to sustain.

The current standoff is far different.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) answers questions on the possibility of a government shutdown at the U.S. Capitol on January 18, 2018 in Washington, DC.
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House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) answers questions on the possibility of a government shutdown at the U.S. Capitol on January 18, 2018 in Washington, DC.

It originated with President Trump's proposal to roll back those cuts Republicans forced Democrats to accept in 2011 to provide roughly $50 billion more for the Pentagon. To offset that increase, the White House requested comparable cuts in nondefense spending.

But Republicans in Congress oppose the Republican president's requested cuts. Instead, they're negotiating with Democrats to increase nondefense spending, too.

Democrats don't control either chamber of Congress. But Republican leaders need some Democratic votes, at least in the Senate, to keep the government open. Democrats have made two major demands.

One is an extension of the Children's Health Insurance Program. The other is continued protection from deportation for the so-called dreamers in Obama's Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.

Polls show strong public support for both.

On Capitol Hill, CHIP has enjoyed bipartisan backing throughout its two-decade existence; Republican leaders themselves have vowed to extend it. Trump says he, like Democrats, wants to protect the dreamers so long as senators from both parties reach a bipartisan compromise on some other immigration issues.

Senators reached that bipartisan compromise. But Trump is now rejecting it.

That's why Democratic senators — and some Republicans — have so far withheld votes needed to prevent a shutdown.

In other words, Republicans in 2011 and 2013 withheld votes in pursuit of goals that were divisive, partisan and quixotic. Democrats are withholding votes now in pursuit of popular goals embraced by both parties.

That reflects a core difference between the two parties. Overwhelmingly reliant on white voters, Republicans are more homogenous and ideologically zealous. Democrats are more diverse and interested in compromise.

The rank-and-file in both parties like it that way. In a 2014 NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll that followed the Obama-era crises, Democrats said by 62 percent to 32 percent they preferred congressional candidates who would compromise. By 54 percent to 38 percent, Republicans preferred candidates who would stick to their positions.

Last October, when the NBC/WSJ poll asked the same question, Democrats responded the same way. Republicans' preference for hard-line views had slightly diminished amid the turbulence of Trump's opening months.

With a shutdown looming Saturday if the Senate fails to approve a temporary government funding bill, those divergent preferences pose a problem for Republicans in November's midterm elections. On a desire for compromise, independent voters side with Democrats.