Republicans and Democrats who represented South Carolina in Congress during the nation’s last government shutdowns, during the 1990s, say the stakes this time are different and no clear resolution is in sight.
Perhaps ominously, their Palmetto State successors now in Congress agree.
The federal government entered a partial shutdown Tuesday when Congress failed to pass a spending plan. The shutdown has resulted in 800,000 federal workers being furloughed nationwide, including more than 10,000 in South Carolina. Other federal workers are being asked to work without pay. Meanwhile, some federal services are being delayed and national parks closed.
Furloughed civilian defense employees received some good news this weekend. Those whose jobs contribute to the “morale, well-being, capabilities and readiness of service members” will be able to return to work Monday thanks to Congress passing a bill authorizing pay through the shutdown, U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced Saturday.
The 1990s impasse, which led to two shutdowns of five and 21 days, was about the nation’s spending and debt. Ultimately, it yielded a compromise between the two parties and a balanced budget agreement, former U.S. House Budget Committee chairman John Spratt, D-York, who spent 28 years representing South Carolina’s 5th District, recalled last week. “Both sides learned something.”
This time, a contingent of Republicans want to dismantle the federal health-care law referred to as Obamacare. Meanwhile, Democrats, including President Barack Obama, refuse to yield.
Asked whether he foresees any solution to the impasse, assistant U.S. House Democratic leader Jim Clyburn, D-S.C., said, “I have no idea. It is almost impossible for me to predict anything. ... Everything about this is so unreasonable and so irrational. It’s insanity.”
Republicans, who hold both of South Carolina’s U.S. Senate seats and six of its seven House seats, see the issue differently.
“Republicans are concerned about adding another trillion-dollar entitlement on top of arguably unsustainable (spending) levels,” said U.S. Rep. Mark Sanford, R-Charleston, who recently was elected to Congress again, after serving his first term during the 1990s shutdowns.
Now is the right time to talk about the health-care law, former S.C. Gov. Sanford said. “If not now, then when?”
Last month, the Republican-majority House agreed to fund the government through mid-December. But the Democratic-majority Senate rejected that proposal, which continued the federal across-the-board budget cuts, known as the sequester, but also cut money for Obamacare, the federal health-care law.
Since then, there has been little progress toward any meeting in the middle.
For Democrats, scrapping Obamacare is a “nonstarter,” said Jordan Ragusa, a College of Charleston political science professor.
But Republicans, whose intent on halting the new health-care law is the wedge between the parties that led to the shutdown, need to come away from negotiations with something, however seemingly small – such as repealing the health-care law’s tax on medical devices.
The problem, Ragusa said, is: “I don’t know what concession (Republicans) could extract from (Senate Majority Leader) Harry Reid (D-Nev.) or the president that would play well back home.”
For their part, Democrats are infuriated by a House spending plan that includes continued sequestration cuts to the federal budget, but no changes to the health-care law, currently sitting in the House.
That bill likely would pass the Senate and House with bipartisan support from Republicans and Democrats alike, Ragusa said. But House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, who controls what bills the House will take up for a vote, has refused to bring the proposal to the House floor because a majority of his party does not support it.
The heightened political tension has S.C. lawmakers – past and present – and others short on ideas about how the current standoff will be resolved.
“In this particular case, I can’t discern what sort of solution is over the horizon when (almost) every day, the Republican leadership comes out with a more ardent stand on their position,” Spratt said. Getting government moving again may take “something short of a (financial) market reaction that scares the devil out of everybody.”
“This time around, it is an ideological issue that is fracturing the Republican Party” as well as pitting the two parties against each other, the College of Charleston’s Ragusa said, contrasting today’s shutdown to the 1990s. “That’s something that is more difficult to solve. That’s (John) Boehner’s challenge.”
‘The bluntest of political tools’
Lawmakers are hesitant to say the 1990s shutdown is the place to find clues as to how the current standoff might be resolved.
That is because, they say, there are many differences between the two clashes.
The debate in the 1996 federal budget year unfolded after Congress had managed to pass some appropriations bills funding different parts of the government, said U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who was a member of the House in the mid-’90s.
The mid-’90s debate also occurred against the backdrop of a stronger national economy, Democrat Clyburn said.
Another difference was the feuding couple leading the fight.
In the mid-’90s, Democratic President Bill Clinton and Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich were communicating regularly. Today, Democratic President Barack Obama and Republican House Speaker John Boehner are not, said U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C., elected to the House in 2001.
Today’s congressional Republicans also appear unflinching in their commitment to using the shutdown to force a deal on Obamacare. Government shutdowns are “the bluntest of political tools ... a way of pulling a chair up to the table” to force negotiations, said Republican Sanford.
Congress also is approaching another deadline that will increase pressure on lawmakers to reach an agreement.
The U.S. Treasury Department expects the nation to reach its borrowing limit Oct. 17. Congress must act by then to raise the debt ceiling or risk defaulting on the nation’s debt.
That intersection – of partial shutdown and catastrophic default – could present an opportunity for a deal.
Republican Graham, for example, said he will not vote to raise the debt ceiling unless Congress does something to address the national debt and spending habits. But Graham also was critical last week of the Republican strategy of attempting to tie defunding of Obamacare to funding the government, calling it a “poor tactical decision.”
While Graham voted for the House spending bill that failed in the Senate, including its changes to Obamacare, he told The State Friday that he “never saw how (having the two issues tied together) would end well for us (Republicans).”
Even if Senate Republicans had succeeded in convincing enough Senate Democrats to vote with them to change the health-care law, Obama would have vetoed the changes, Graham said. “I never believed that was possible, that (Obama) was going to defund his signature accomplishment.”
The public also disapproves of that tactic, Graham added.
Looking for compromise
Robin Tallon, a Democrat who represented South Carolina’s 6th District in Congress in the 1980s and later became a lobbyist in Washington, said House Republicans should be trying to figure out how to get something out of this battle that would pass both chambers.
Tallon said he understands Republicans feel the health-care law was “shoved down their throats.” But, he added, “It is the law of the land.”
Repealing the new law’s tax on medical devices, for example, could spell a small victory for Republicans.
Clyburn, the state’s sole Democrat in Congress, says his party already has compromised enough, accepting cuts to assistance programs whose budgets were reduced by sequestration.
Clyburn said Republicans are trying to dismantle a law, Obamacare, that he says the majority of Americans support, as evidenced by their re-electing Obama last year.
“The American people made their judgment over this act last year,” Clyburn said. “Now, you’ve got a group of people trying to undo the election. That’s crazy. That’s not rational.”
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