The Shutdown Congress, And Why The GOP Can't Help Itself

"A luxury this country cannot afford."

WASHINGTON -- The U.S. government shut down for 16 days in 2013 because some Republicans wanted to "defund" Obamacare. The shutdown hurt the economy and polls showed Americans blamed the GOP.

Several Republican lawmakers said it was a mistake.

House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) have both vowed there will be no more shutting down of the government. On Friday, McConnell called it "an exercise in futility." Last month, he summed up the folly by saying "there's no education in the second kick of a mule."

Nevertheless, a sizable contingent in their party appears ready for a remedial encounter with the hooves. The government will run out of money at the end of September, and while congressional leaders have yet to offer a plan to keep the lights on, some Republicans have already seized on the notion of linking that vital spending to a bill defunding Planned Parenthood -- a move that would guarantee deadlock.

From the perspective of anti-abortion Republicans, however, the likelihood of failure is less important. Since they lack the votes to win their goals, they are left with few ways to advance their cause or satisfy their voters.

"If we pass a piece of legislation that defunds the president's unconstitutional actions on immigration or defunds an organization like Planned Parenthood -- if we do that, we simply don't get a vote [in the Senate], and therefore to maintain that position requires a government shutdown," Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.) told reporters Friday in an attempt to explain the dilemma. "It's an insidious tragedy."

Democrats are not impressed.

"What they are saying is, for an ideological bent in their caucus they would shut down the government," House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said Friday. "They are a luxury this country cannot afford."

Franks is one of 40-plus members of the House Freedom Caucus, a group devoted to cutting off Planned Parenthood's federal funding over sting videos that purport to show the organization harvests aborted baby parts for profit (not true). Some of the caucus' members, including Reps. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) and Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), seem to regret the 2013 shutdown.

"Should I have maybe gotten another strategy to address that?" Meadows said to the Asheville Citizen-Times last year. "I think history shows us the answer to that is yes."

Jordan made a similar remark this week.

"I think some of the tactics and strategy used in that showdown and that debate two years ago were wrong," Jordan said on C-SPAN on Thursday. "But I don't think it's a mistake to fight for what we told the voters we were going to fight for."

Rep. Dave Reichert noted that Congress represents a "pretty diverse" country.
Rep. Dave Reichert noted that Congress represents a "pretty diverse" country.

Rep. Dave Reichert (Wash.), a more moderate Republican, said the problem stems not just from the members of Congress, but from the people who send them to Washington.

"They bring those thoughts, ideas and positions on issues here, and they're pretty diverse around the country right now, as you can see," said Reichert, speaking slowly and choosing his words carefully. "So that brings that diversity here."

While he declined to say what he wanted in a government funding bill, Reichert suggested he would prefer a little more compromise from his colleagues.

"On both sides there are groups that are fixed in ideological positions, and sometimes, in these major bills, they're unwilling to adjust their ideological belief," he said.

"I come from an area of the world, a profession that, you know, it's right and wrong, you're going to jail/you're not going to jail kind of deal. I was a SWAT commander, I was a hostage negotiator, and here both of those come in handy, by the way," Reichert said. "Here, it's a gray world, and the definition of right and wrong is fuzzy, and so I think it complicates things."

Over the last four years, the gray, fuzzy world he referred to has become downright destructive, from causing a near default on the nation's debt in 2011 to the government closure in 2013, not to mention periodic blockages that have shuttered airports, threatened the Department of Homeland Security and halted road construction projects. Though the federal government has shut down only once in the Obama era, the threat has been constant. Congress flirted with shutdowns several times in 2011 and again last year in a bid to stop the president's immigration policies.

The prospects for this year include not just a government shutdown showdown, but acrimonious battles next month over extending the debt limit and reauthorizing a long-term highway bill. Failure on any of those is likely to cost the nation and the economy billions of dollars. A string of tax breaks is also set to expire unless Congress acts.

"The perfect storm is out there, brewing," Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said Wednesday when asked about the unfinished business.

Politically, the dysfunction can be equally destructive. While the battles may please lawmakers' most ardent constituents, Democrats are quick to point out how deeply unpopular the episodes are with the broader public.

The current Planned Parenthood dispute feeds easily into Democratic charges of a war on women by the GOP.

Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) said that both the 2013 shutdown over Obamacare and the new threat to Planned Parenthood, which provides abortions but mostly offers women's health services, are attacks on women's health. All the lawmakers who've signed a letter vowing to defund the organization are men -- a fact that has already spawned an online ad campaign.

"I wouldn't put it past them if they never went to speak to a woman about these issues," DeLauro told the HuffPost Politics podcast. "Secondly, if they did, no one wanted to get on. And third, as I'd say, this is more than a letter, this is about a lack of respect and dignity of women and a lack of trust in the choices women make for their medical needs and the needs of their families."

Listen to DeLauro's interview here:

Franks told HuffPost that Republican women have, in fact, attended Freedom Caucus gatherings. "The meetings that we've had in these listening sessions have been filled with a lot of the female members of this conference," he said.

None of those women has signed the letter, though.

The effort to link defunding Planned Parenthood to funding the government could still fail. Even if it does, the monkey wrench it has thrown into the appropriations process may have already set the course for a shutdown.

That's because Republican lawmakers, unable to come up with a spending plan, have yet to talk to Democrats, who have been saying since spring that they will not vote for anything that looks like the budget blueprint that the GOP passed earlier in the year.

Congress is scheduled to be in session just nine more days before the money runs out at midnight on Sept. 30. Reid and other Democrats have been adamant in saying they will not simply accept whatever the GOP gives them at the last second.

So even if the members of the "shutdown caucus" -- as some Democrats call them -- lose on the anti-abortion battle, they could wind up with their shutdown, anyway.