House Republicans are unlikely to pay much of a political price for taking the nation to the brink of fiscal chaos. Regardless of national polls, most House Republicans will run for re-election in safe, conservative districts more likely to applaud than jeer their actions.
In Senate races and swing districts, where independents have more of a say, they could be hurting their prospects.
Partisans heed the calling of such interests not only for votes, but for money. Groups keep score and insist they’ll challenge those who deviate from their orthodoxy. Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, Wyoming Sen. Mike Enzi, Idaho Rep. Mike Simpson and others face primary challenges next year.
McConnell is still criticized for agreeing to a plan to rescue Wall Street in 2008. Simpson is being blasted for that vote, as well as his support of the New Year’s Eve compromise that imposed higher taxes on the wealthy and delayed automatic spending cuts for two months. Eighty-four other Republicans joined him.
For years, such positions were politically astute. McConnell, Simpson and others could cite strong conservative voting records, but an ability to bend so the system would work.
Veteran lawmakers remember the 1995-96 shutdown, and the notion that Republicans took a beating. Clinton saw his Gallup poll approval rating jump over 50 percent just after the shutdown ended; it never went below that number again. House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s image never recovered, and he was eventually pushed out of his job.
In some circles today, that conventional wisdom has shifted. Most members of Congress, and for that matter most constituents, don’t remember that shutdown, making new interpretations more accepted.
“A lot of people now say others learned the wrong lessons from 1996,” said Dan Holler of Heritage Action, which is pushing an Obamacare repeal. Republicans retained Senate and House control, he noted, and within two years the nation had a balanced budget.
The shutdown experience, says this view, emboldened Republicans. They went to the edge in 2011 and last year and wound up with significant spending cuts.
“That was a result of the showdown over the debt ceiling,” said Holler.
There are means to an endgame. One-party control is one antidote, but that doesn’t appear imminent. Republicans are expected to need a net gain of six seats next year to win Senate control, and Democrats now hold the most vulnerable seats up for election. Republicans are also expected to maintain their majority of the House, where they have a 233-200 edge.
The other way Washington calms down is for one side to score a clear win. Polls show the president gets the credit when the economy recovers, but Republicans could win support if, after the new health care law takes effect, more people dislike its impact.
“All this ends when someone gets blamed,” said Darrell West, vice president of governance studies at the Brookings Institution.
At the moment, it’s not clear who that could be.