News Journal: Shutting down the government is, as they say, nuts

As the famous philosopher Yogi Berra once said, it’s déjà vu all over again. We’re heading for another fiscal cliff.

If Congress does not pass a continuing resolution to fund the government by Oct. 1, it will shut down. If we dodge that bullet, Secretary of the Treasury Jack Lew just estimated that unless the debt limit is extended by the middle of October, the government will face a partial shutdown. In either case, there would be irreparable harm to our credit rating. The chaos any prolonged government shutdown would cause is unimaginable.

Last time this was the scenario, the argument was pretty much Republicans vs. Democrats. This time, President Obama and an unusually united Democratic congressional delegation have said flatly they will not negotiate to avoid the threatened shutdowns. The argument now is very much Republicans vs. Republicans.

Twelve Republican senators, including Sens. Cruz, Paul and Rubio, and 71 Republican House members are demanding the government defund Obamacare or they will vote against the continuing resolution and increasing the debt limit.

Given that the three senators mentioned are all potential presidential candidates in 2016, no one is dismissing the threat as coming from a fringe group.

But the Republican governors of Wisconsin, Mississippi, Iowa and North Dakota all immediately spoke out against threatening a government shutdown. A number of Republican senators did, too.

“It’s going to do great harm to the American people if we pursue that,” said Saxbe Chambliss of Georgia.

“It’s totally unrealistic policy,” said Susan Collins of Maine. “Let me tell you what happens when you shut down the government: You start seeing the consequences.”

“They have no idea, I was in it. I experienced it,” said Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, referring to the last actual government shutdown in 1995.

John McCain of Arizona warned against more “government shutdown shenanigans.”

None of these Republicans supports Obamacare, of course. They either think the threat is wrong as a matter of principle, as I do, or that, as a practical matter, it simply won’t work. Former Republican Vice-Presidential candidate Paul Ryan spoke for those who think the threat won’t work on “Face the Nation”:

“With the government shutdown, we’re talking about discretionary spending, government agency budgets. But it doesn’t affect entitlements. Obamacare is an entitlement like Medicare and Social Security is, so the entitlement continues on, even under a government shutdown scenario. So it’s just not that simple and easy.”

Tom Cole of Oklahoma, long a leading Republican in the House, spoke for those who think the threat is wrong on principle: “It seems to me there’s appropriate ways to deal with the law, but shutting down the government to get your way over an unrelated piece of legislation is the political equivalent of throwing a temper tantrum. It’s just not helpful.”

Sen. Cruz’s response to his skeptical colleagues was dismissive –and perhaps a veiled warning of political retaliation if they don’t go along. “They’re nervous about being blamed for a government shutdown,” Cruz was quoted as saying in Time Magazine. ”To win this fight, we have to make it riskier to do the wrong thing than it is to do the right thing.”

While the Republicans are fighting this out, let me put things in some perspective. There are a lot of federal laws I don’t like. If I still had a Senate vote, I’d do everything possible to defund, say, the billion-dollar-a-year subsidy given each year to domestic sugar farmers. By “everything possible,” I mean urging others to see things my way, voting against the subsidy at every opportunity, and hoping that eventually a majority would vote to change the law that provides the subsidy.

It never occurred to me I could threaten to close down the government because the executive branch was doing its constitutional duty by implementing a law of the land. That’s not just a temper tantrum. That’s anarchy.

I really hope the majority of Republicans will reject threatening a shutdown on those grounds. But if they don’t, I hope their sense of self-preservation prevails. The reliably conservative Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer put it well:

“This is nuts. The president will never sign a bill defunding the singular achievement of his presidency. Especially when he has control of the Senate. Especially when, though a narrow 51 percent majority of Americans disapproves of Obamacare, only 36 percent favors repeal …

“Those who fancy themselves tea party patriots fighting a sold-out cocktail-swilling establishment are demanding yet another cliff dive as a show of principle and manliness.

“But there’s no principle at stake here. This is about tactics. If I thought this would work, I would support it. But I don’t fancy suicide. It has a tendency to be fatal.”

Ted Kaufman is a former U.S. Senator from Delaware.