This week on Capitol Hill, a proposal to aid Syrian rebels got all the drama, while the larger government funding bill it was attached to barely got mention. But that spending package is quite similar to the one that led to the government shutdown in October — most notably, it still funds the Affordable Care Act. Yet this year, talk of a government shutdown was virtually nonexistent.
The main reason? It’s an election year, and that changed the calculation for House leaders.
Late last September, House Speaker John Boehner was in a miserable place. Some House Republicans were clamoring to defund the health care law, even if it meant shutting down the government. There was talk that Boehner’s days as speaker were numbered.
But this September, just one day before the House was set to vote on a comparable government spending bill, the mood was totally different. His office was cheerfully sending out a video of “A Day in the Life of Speaker Boehner,” featuring scenes of Boehner nonchalantly popping into Starbucks and eating breakfast at a diner called Pete’s.
Republicans just as nonchalantly agreed this week to keep the government open through mid-December.
“Especially now, when we do have a chance of winning the Senate, I think it’s election-year politics that the government’s not going to shut down,” said House Republican Lynn Westmoreland of Georgia. Fellow Republican Bill Huizenga of Michigan says that means you don’t resort to political stunts that could turn off voters.
“This is not worth the heartburn for anybody. We know that we’re this close to an election. The American people are going to have to step up and figure out what direction we’re going to go,” said Huizenga.
Here’s a look at the even- versus odd-numbered years since the Republicans took the House:
- 2014, smooth sailing.
- 2013, government shutdown.
- 2012, smooth sailing — until the fiscal cliff crisis, which was after November.
- 2011 — the debt ceiling showdown.
So did we escape a government shutdown this week simply because there’s an election coming up?
Rep. Peter King of New York says there was also something else — some people have just grown up.
“I think that Ted Cruz and others like him have gone from pre-adolescence to adulthood in one year. They had a very quick learning lesson over the last year,” said King.
And he’s not only talking about the group of Republicans who got blamed for the shutdown. Rep. Steve King of Iowa says a whole swath of his colleagues had a change of heart.
“We saw a couple dozen Republicans say, ‘I’ll vote with the Democrats if I need to, but I’m not going to go through this stress anymore,’ ” he said.
And that shift in House Republican dynamics has strengthened Speaker Boehner’s position within his caucus. Last fall he had tried but failed to persuade his colleagues not to repeat the party’s mistake in 1995, when Republicans led the country into two government shutdowns. Twenty years earlier, a much younger Congressman John Boehner actually had supported those shutdowns. But he learned a lesson, and many of his newer colleagues have now too.
Boehner went on the offensive this primary season to secure party discipline by mobilizing large groups, including the Chamber of Commerce, to pump money into defeating Tea Party challengers.
He had a few hurdles this year — when conservatives pressured him to pull a border bill from the House floor in July, for instance — but it’s been a relatively disaster-free 2014.
Republican Tom Cole says his caucus is finally beginning to get it — cut the drama, and focus on winning big in an election to ultimately get what you want, including repealing Obamacare.
“Until you get a Republican Senate and Republican president to work with, it’s going to be extremely difficult to repeal the whole thing, so picking that kind of fight right now just plays right into the hands of your political opponents and doesn’t work,” said Cole.
After the November election, though, all bets are off for a calm 2015. There may even be room for one showdown just before the New Year — because the government is scheduled to run out of funding in mid-December.