An Eyewitness Account of the Final 12 Hours as a Democracy Went Off the Rails

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Oct. 1 2013 1:26 PM

My Shutdown Diary

An eyewitness account of the final 12 hours as a democracy went off the rails.

(Continued from Page 1)

8:54 p.m. In the time lag between the rule and the final vote, members of the House milled around and plotted their next moves. “Plotted” may be a strong word. Oklahoma Rep. James Lankford, a red-haired and deep-voiced member of the 2010 class, held court in a corner, showing reporters what he called his “serious face” as he discussed how the GOP got here.

“Once we cross over pass midnight, it might not make a difference if we do it at 1 a.m. or if we do it at 8 a.m. tomorrow,” said Lankford. “Once we cross over into the dead zone.” He pauses. “Y’all know if the president signed the military pay bill? We had some civilian folks who called our office and asked that, and we haven’t heard yet.”

Did Lankford think the GOP had gained anything, so far, by pingponging with the Senate when the White House won’t negotiate at all?

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“There’s the big issue. Can the White House continue to say over and over again, ‘We won’t negotiate with anyone? Everyone has to do it my way or no way?’ How long can you say we don’t have a constitutional government?”

Kentucky Rep. Tom Massie, a libertarian who often votes against the leadership, stood just outside the Speaker’s Lobby and predicted defeat. “We’re rushing toward a clean CR,” he said. Was he surprised that the White House had refused to negotiate as the GOP had made smaller and smaller demands? “I’m not surprised,” he said. “This is Pawn Stars 101. You don’t come off your offer until he comes off his price! Are you gonna pay his price? If you pay once without him budging, you end up at his price.”

New York Rep. Steve Israel left the floor with a grin visible from several yards away. He ran the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in 2012, making modest gains even on a gerrymandered map, and he’s been insisting that the Obamacare wars would help his party win the House in 2014. When a reporter mentioned the Peter King charge, Israel rolled his eyes.

“When the best you can muster is two out of six, it tells you what’s happened to the moderates in the Republican Party,” he said. “They live in fear of a Tea Party primary. That explains what you see every day in this place.”

Israel started rattling off the names of Republicans from districts where sequestration and a negative party brand could help elect Democrats. Israel is told that Republicans think the stink of a shutdown will wear off by 2014. “Can you quote me as laughing?” he asked. Why wouldn’t voters also blame Barack Obama for a shutdown? “If I were a House Republican, I would die for President Obama’s approval rating right now. If I’m at 16 percent, 48 percent looks pretty good.”

9:47 p.m. The Senate moved to table the new continuing resolution. Once again, every Democrat voted with Harry Reid. Once again, Republicans left ready to trash the House’s strategy.

“From my standpoint, I think the House has gotten enough advice from senators,” said Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson.

“Obamacare is not popular, but we've managed to find the one thing that's less popular than Obamacare,” said Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake. “That's shutting down the government. Quite an achievement!”

Flake sounded baffled by the lack of strategy. “This is my first shutdown,” he said. “Every 17 years, now? It’s like the cicada. It takes about that long for people to find out how bad it was, and then there’s that screeching sound again. A shutdown doesn’t even save any money.”

One of the last senators to leave the floor was Ted Cruz. The media horde had mostly decamped to the House, to see what Boehner would try next. The only people close to Cruz were photographers, who snapped countless shots of him waiting, alone, next to a tardy elevator.

“You stand so well for photos, now!” said one photographer.

“I guess I do,” said Cruz.

10:54 p.m. Politico’s Jake Sherman broke the news on Twitter: House Republicans would try to pass another continuing resolution, one that contained basically everything from Plan C but went to the Senate with instructions for a conference committee. Democrats were legitimately baffled by this. Way back in the spring, the House Republicans had tied the hike in the debt limit to the Senate’s passage of a budget. This, they said, would restore “regular order,” and allow the parties to meet in conference to hash out a spending plan. It never happened, largely because Senate Republicans objected—18 times—to setting up conference. And now Republicans wanted to try to do this, or argue that they tried, less than two hours before the end of the fiscal quarter.

The new-new-new-new continuing resolution went to the House Rules Committee, where Democrats, if they so chose, could eat up time asking what Republicans were even thinking. They chose to do so. Florida Rep. Alcee Hastings, a once-impeached judge who is now the best Democratic filibusterer on the committee, asked Rules Chairman Pete Sessions if he’d cleared this plan with Senate Democrats.

“In fact, that's a good question and I cannot answer it honestly,” he said.

“Answer it dishonestly, then!” said Hastings. He lectured Sessions on how, up to this point, he’d been unsure if the GOP had lost its collective mind or not. He was no longer unsure. “You have lost it.”

While the House committee met, Senate Democrats led by Reid and by Appropriations Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski take the floor and denounce the plan. “We will not go to conference with a gun to our head,” said Reid. He wanted the House to pass the “clean” continuing resolution, not the one Democrats would have to perform surgery on.

11:36 p.m. The House Democrats hastily scheduled a press conference to denounce the GOP for belatedly asking to go to conference, when they—the Democrats—had wanted such a conference for months. Rep. Chris Van Hollen, the ranking member of the Budget Committee, produced paper evidence of the Democratic claim, not that anyone doubted it. A reporter from National Review asked the assembled leaders what they thought of the Vitter Amendment, which after all was still duct-taped onto the continuing resolution.

“That’s not a real issue,” said Minority Whip Steny Hoyer. “The issue is whether we keep the government, on behalf of the American people, open. In my view, the people who offered that don’t believe in it.”

“You know what else?” interjected Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. “They’re fakers! They want that to not prevail, but they want us to vote for it!”

The press conference broke up shortly before midnight. Vermont Democratic Rep. Peter Welch, who’d been standing off to the side, stared blankly at the departing crowd.

“Welp,” he said. “We’ve got ourselves a situation.”

Tuesday Oct. 1, 1:10 a.m. The House passed Plan D, with a smattering of Republican “no” votes and Democratic “aye” votes. TV networks were already running their Special Reports on the shutdown. The leadership’s press aides told reporters to head over to the press conference, where Boehner would explain the next moves. The press conference lasted for a little more than a minute. Boehner took two questions.

“Eight hundred thousand federal employees are receiving notices that they’re no longer needed on their jobs,” asked NBC reporter Luke Russert. “What’s your message to them, and do you have a plan to restore back pay to them?”

“The House has voted to keep the government open, but we also want basic fairness for all Americans,” said Boehner.

The speaker turned and walked away. Peter Welch, who was “on the way home,” had stuck around to watch Boehner’s remarks. He walked out through Statuary Hall and the rotunda, a dozen or so steps behind the GOP team.

“Shut it down!” said Welch in a mock-tough voice. The Republicans headed outside to their idling black SUVs. Welch raised his finger to the ceiling, as if making a grand speech. “Shut this sucker down!”

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