Republicans’ flirtation with a shutdown of the Department of Homeland Security intensified over the weekend. Boehner appears entrenched and suggested Sunday that a shutdown is possible. On President’s Day the dynamic changed… possibly. A federal judge in Texas recently halted the President’s executive action on immigration. Several reports suggest that this could pave the way for DHS funding bill to sail through. However, it is not clear the judge’s decision greased the wheels on either side of the aisle. Republicans are likely wary that the court decision could be reversed in the coming days. Meanwhile, Senate Democrats have no incentive to back down. They’re gaining support from a large and growing portion of their base by fighting Republicans’ attempt to defund Obama’s immigration action. It is unlikely that the court’s injunction has any effect on the political dynamics embroiling this debate.
Matt Yglesias has a very good piece detailing Republicans’ perseverance despite potentially damaging outcomes from the shutdown. Essentially, Republicans felt little to no repercussions from the last government shutdown. The shutdown polled very badly for Republicans in October of 2013 but in November of 2014 they rode a wave to complete congressional control. Put simply, if the 2013 shutdown did not result in catastrophic losses, why would a 2015 shutdown of a single department be different?
Actually, there are lots of reasons to believe this time is different. The one factor in Republicans’ favor is that this strategy would only shutdown DHS instead of the entire government. After that, all advantages break toward the other party.
First, with healthy majorities in both chambers this is Republicans’ boat to crash. In 2013 Republicans shouldered most of the blame but Democrats were also hurt in the polls just not to the same extent. This time there is no Democratic majority to blame. With complete control of Congress, Republicans have been unable to pass a funding bill. Had the President vetoed the legislation, Democrats may take a hit. But at the moment, Democratic involvement in Republicans' inability to pass legislation is obscure at best.
Yet, Democrats are at the heart of Republicans’ predicament. Their filibuster is preventing Republicans from taking a stand against the President. The problem Republicans face is that blaming Democratic obstruction is not terribly effective. Filibusters obscure accountability. If you want proof of that, just look at how effectively now Majority Leader Mitch McConnell used filibusters to retake the Senate. By increasing obstruction Republicans retook control of Congress. Most voters are unaware of the filibuster and its processes. Put differently, most people are unaware that Democrats are involved at all. Therefore, Republican attempts to blame the shutdown on Democrats will fall on mostly deaf ears. In a worst case scenario it may actually help Democrats by raising awareness and boosting their support among Latinos. This kind of blame game does not fall in Republicans’ favor.
And lastly, the 2013 government shutdown was shortened by intervening factors. The government was reopened only after an 11th hour gambit to prevent a debt ceiling catastrophe. If there was no debt ceiling threat looming on October 17th, it’s unlikely the shutdown would have ended on October 16th. In many ways the debt ceiling prevented further damage from the shutdown. Once the government was reopened, Republicans enjoyed several months of botched ACA rollout coverage. Within a few months, Republican approval ratings had rebounded.
This time there is no negative Democratic press cycle to fall back on or divert attention. There is no confusion over which chamber (or party) of Congress is causing the shutdown. The context of this potential shutdown is drastically different.
Whatever the logic is shutdown politics remain an awful strategy, particularly for a majority party. While some may view the 2014 election as an affirmation of prior shutdowns, expecting the same soft-landing in 2015 is likely a costly mistake.