WASHINGTON — Few memories haunt Republicans more deeply than the 1995-96 partial shutdown of the federal government, which helped President Clinton reverse his falling fortunes and recast House Republicans as stubborn partisans, not savvy insurgents.
Now, as Congress careens toward a budget impasse, government insiders wonder if another shutdown is imminent — and whether Republicans again would suffer the most blame.
Leaders of both parties say they are determined to avoid a shutdown. But they have not yielded on the amount of spending cuts they will demand or accept. Meanwhile, shutdown talk is rippling through Washington and beyond.
"It's good for political rhetoric to talk about a government shutdown. But I don't know anybody that wants that to happen," Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., said on "Fox News Sunday."
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Behind the scenes, Senate officials are spending Congress' President's Day recess week poring over the spending proposal passed by the House early Saturday, according to one Democratic leader.
"We are prepared to negotiate right away," Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said on CNN's "State of the Union."
The Obama administration is warning that workers who handle Social Security benefits might be furloughed. Almost hourly, top Democrats and Republicans accuse each other of pushing the government to the brink by being inflexible.
"So much is at stake if this great government shuts down," said House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi. "I would hope that instead of having ultimatums, we go forward with an approach that talks about how we keep government open."
The House Republican campaign committee said Democrats are "shouting for a shutdown."
For all the political drama and rhetoric, the actual stakes of a shutdown are not so dire for ordinary Americans. The military would stay active, interstate highways would remain open, and government checks would be issued, although new applicants for benefits under programs such as Social Security might have their sign-ups delayed.
In fact, the federal government has had more than a dozen "shutdowns" since 1981. Some lasted only hours, and few are remembered.
The exception is the two-stage partial shutdown of 1995 and 1996. Then, as now, a Democratic president clashed over spending priorities with a recently installed Republican House majority. Then, as now, Congress had failed to fund the government for a full fiscal year, so agencies depended on a series of "continuing resolutions" to keep them in business while lawmakers feuded.
When Clinton in late 1995 vetoed a Republican-crafted spending bill — he called it insufficient for health care, education and other programs — parts of the government closed for six days.
After a brief truce, the parties clashed again. Hundreds of thousands of "non-essential" federal workers were furloughed for three weeks, from mid-December to early January. (Some workers eventually received back pay for missed days.) National parks, museums, passport offices and other agencies closed.
Each party blamed the other. But public opinion soon swung toward Clinton and the Democrats. House Speaker Newt Gingrich didn't help himself by suggesting he had triggered the shutdown out of pique because Clinton had made him ride in the back of Air Force One. Friends called it the biggest mistake of Gingrich's career.
"There's absolutely no way" House Republicans will allow a shutdown, said Rep. Jerry Lewis of California, first elected in 1978. "It was a big mistake when Newt did it."
Some political insiders are not convinced that a new shutdown would play out like the last one, or that Republicans would take nearly all the blame. Public alarm over the federal debt has grown dramatically in the past decade and a half. And Republicans regained control of the House last fall largely because of candidates backed by the conservative, limited government tea party movement who ran on promises to slash spending.
The latest congressional showdown centers on spending for the current fiscal year, which is one-third over. House Republicans have promised to cut $60 billion from "discretionary non-security" programs. Those programs comprise 12 percent of the entire budget, and they exclude items such as the military, Social Security and Medicare.
President Obama and congressional Democrats say such cuts would be reckless and damaging at a time when the economic recovery remains fragile. They want to freeze discretionary, non-security spending at current levels for five years. That would slow or halt the typical annual climb, but Republicans say it's not enough.
Both parties say they have given as much ground as possible. If something doesn't change before March 4, when the current funding measure expires, a partial government shutdown could be unavoidable.
The big guessing game in Washington is: Who will blink first? In corridors and offices, they game out possible scenarios.
The Democratic-controlled Senate, which has begun a week-long recess, won't have time before the March 4 deadline to take up the $60 billion cost-cutting bill the House just completed.
In early March, senators will devise a short-term spending proposal likely to reflect the Democrats' demands to hold spending at current levels. Republican senators could use procedural maneuvers to block a vote on the Democrats' proposal, which probably would trigger a government shutdown.
In the event of a shutdown, some Republican strategists say deficit-weary Americans would blame Democrats for refusing deeper cuts. Democrats say voters would view Republicans as unreasonable obstructionists, as they did 15 years ago. Neither group, however, seems fully confident, and no one knows how much the political ground has shifted since Obama's election.