If you want to get a rise out of a congressional Republican, ask him whether he thinks the budget debate will end in a government shutdown. Go ahead. Ask.
"The only people talking about shutdown are media and Democrats," said an exasperated Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., in a scrum with reporters this week. "I find that very interesting. Oh—them, and also Wisconsin state senate Democrats."
On the other side of the Hill, Republicans say the same thing. Freshman Rep. David Schweikert, R-Ariz., responded to the question by describing how it came up at a town-hall meeting in his district. "Even in that audience," he said, "which was made up of a lot of moderates from my district—even they were willing to admit that whenever they turned on their televisions and heard somebody talking about a shutdown, the somebody was a Democrat."
It's unanimous: The shutdown talk is a Democratic distraction tactic. Republicans don't want to shut the government down, no matter what some of their more battle-ready members said before the election, or as late as last week.
This is not just the GOP's line. It also has the benefit of being true. The party is getting most of what it wants right now by taking advantage of the existential dread of a government shutdown and of the Democrats' failure, in 2010, actually to pass a budget. They're not getting everything they want, but in conversations this week, Republicans suggested that they could get most of it without shutting down anything.
"I think the ability to finish out a CR from here to September is important," said freshman Rep. Cory Gardner, R-Colo. "But if the Senate's not willing to cut spending, and if it's only willing to cut spending two weeks at a time, then so be it."
Gardner quickly pondered his choice of words, which got Speaker of the House John Boehner in trouble, albeit on a different issue. "I'd rather not say, 'So be it,' " he said. "Those words seem to have taken on a life of their own."
He was just being honest. The fear of a shutdown was telegraphed so long in advance that it lost its ability to scare, like some 3-D sequel to Jaws. The point of a possible shutdown, as some Republicans first discussed it, was to force the Obama administration to accept spending cuts. When Newt Gingrich floated the possibility of a shutdown 11 months ago at an appearance at the Heritage Foundation, he said the 1995-96 government shutdown had actually gone the GOP's way and led to a balanced budget.
There's no balanced budget on the horizon right now. What Republicans want are cuts— the biggest cuts they can possibly get. They have figured out that they can get sizable cuts by running right up to the line of crisis, then getting continuing resolutions passed.
That was what happened this week. Republicans had offered a two-week continuing resolution that funded the government while cutting $4 billion from discretionary spending—education, transportation, health and human services, the usual suspects. And it passed. Republicans aren't saying that weeks and weeks of short-term continuing resolutions are ideal—nobody thinks this—but the resolutions are a way to get what they want despite controlling only one chamber of Congress.
This is easier than a shutdown and more popular. Polling on the threat of a standoff, with its attendant imagery of federal parks closing their doors and Social Security checks sitting unsent in vaults, doesn't look good for anyone. Last month's Washington Post poll on the possibility asked voters whom they'd blame for a shutdown. Thirty-six percent said Republicans, 35 percent said the president, and 17 percent said both. Republicans, on-message, insist that Democrats want the crisis to happen to help Obama. Democrats, on-message, insist that Republicans are Sam Peckinpah characters who can't be reasoned with.
"Both sides have studied what happened in 1995 as if it was the Holy Grail," said Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore. "I understand that. The country's aware that there's more to this than dickering over a two-week agreement."
I talked to Wyden in the early afternoon; he speculated that the White House could regain the initiative here by defining its goals. "This next round, the White House has an opportunity to frame this debate in terms of pro-growth economics and an agenda the country can rally to," he said. "If not, it's going to look like, oh, a short-term deal, then more people in suits stand around and bicker, then another short-term."
A few hours later, the White House went in another direction. Gene Sperling, the head of the president's National Economic Council, announced that the administration could accept $6.5 billion more in cuts. There was no specifying what the cuts would be. But there would be cuts.
Republicans are taking a lot of ground as they fight this out. They are not taking everything. Their seven-month continuing resolution, passed last month, includes riders that ban Planned Parenthood funding and strip funding to implement the Affordable Care Act and other riders that fulfill promises they made on the trail. The continuing resolution that passed this week doesn't include these. That's the reason Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn. opposed it, and that will be a reason some of their members oppose these CRs. But there's no serious talk of shutting government down over this. The policy fights can happen when the 2012 budget comes out. The debate over cuts can happen now, with Democrats reacting to Republican proposals.
"The cuts we can agree to, ultimately, will be the cuts," said Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb. Asked what cuts he could support, he said: "They will be subject to negotiation, but they will be substantial. My sense is that we have a lot of people running around here with a number or a percentage but not a plan. We need to develop a plan."
Failing that, they can kick the can another two weeks.