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.

House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) (C) walks to the floor of the Republican-controlled House to vote for budget legislation, including measures meant to weaken the Affordable Care Act (known as Obamacare), to send it to the Democratic-controlled Senate during a late-night budget showdown.
House Speaker John Boehner walks to the floor of the Republican-controlled House during a late-night budget showdown at the U.S. Capitol on Sept. 30, 2013.

Photo by Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

Monday, Sept. 30, 2:08 p.m. If the House GOP’s Saturday night vote-a-rama had a point, it was pure PR. House Republicans were at work while Americans were watching baseball; Senate Democrats were AWOL. On Sunday, led by Conference Chairwoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers, a gaggle of House Republicans had stood between the Capitol and C-SPAN cameras and hectored Majority Leader Harry Reid’s Democrats for not moving the newest continuing resolution—the one with the one-year delay of the Affordable Care Act. “Come back and do what is required in a democracy!” said Arkansas Rep. Tim Griffin. “O Senate, where art thou?” asked Tennessee Rep. Marsha Blackburn.

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a reporter for Bloomberg Politics

The Senate was biding time until Reid brought it back to kill the resolution. Senators filed in to table it, all 54 Democrats versus all 46 Republicans. Arizona Sen. John McCain stuck around after his vote to tell reporters, who have rekindled their affection for him, why the House GOP was careening toward death and destruction.

“Eighty percent of the American people don’t want the government shut down,” said McCain. “They don’t like government—they don’t want it shut down! We’re really making this much more complicated than it needs to be. Therefore, ergo, we’re not going to repeal Obamacare! OK? That’s it. We may do this for a week. We may do this for a month. It’ll end up the same way.”

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Howard Fineman, the longtime Washington reporter who now works for the Huffington Post, attempted to bait McCain. “Some people say this is your fault because you picked Sarah Palin as a running mate,” says Fineman.

“Everything’s my fault,” snarks McCain. “In fact, you’re one of the ones that blamed me for everything, Howard.”

Another reporter asked if there was “a scenario” where the House strategy would work, and change Democrats’ minds.

“I see a scenario where pigs fly, but it’s not likely.”

2:58 p.m. While Senate Democrats were feeding the GOP’s continuing resolution through the shredder, House Republicans were meeting in their usual basement conference room, talking over next moves. The details of the new continuing resolution, “Plan C,” leaked immediately. Republicans would compromise by giving up on a full delay of Obamacare but asking for a one-year delay of the individual mandate and a rider that nixed health care subsidies for members of Congress and their staffers. This was popularly referred to as the “Vitter Amendment,” because Louisiana Sen. David Vitter (who, relatedly, might run for governor of his state next year) had written it, and because up to now it had been seen as an act of political gamesmanship that was not intended to become a law. At the same time, they’d pass a micro-continuing resolution that paid the military and saved everyone from the most torturous of shutdown talking points.

House Republicans trickled out of the meeting, running head-first into dozens of reporters, many armed with cameras and pleading for them to “stop and talk for a minute.” Most of them pushed on wordlessly, only to be chased down by reporters unencumbered by cameras. “The government’s been shut down 17 times in the past,” said South Carolina Rep. Jeff Duncan, who left the room early for another meeting. “The majority of those were controlled by a Democrat Congress.” His very next words: “This isn’t about shutting the government down. Republicans have a plan to keep government funded but also be responsible to American voters that spoke very loudly to us that they don’t like Obamacare. Obamacare is actually shutting down America.”

In 20 seconds, Duncan had insisted that a government shutdown wasn’t a huge deal, and that of course Republicans would never be holding the smoking gun for such a devastating act. One reporter followed up with Duncan, asking why Barack Obama’s election didn’t prove that “voters” had also spoken loudly in favor of the law.

“I was re-elected in 2012, too,” says Duncan.

3:50 p.m. The Plan C meeting ended after nearly two hours, 200-odd Republicans spilling out into the halls leading back to offices or the Capitol to be harangued by reporters. New York Rep. Peter King was glad to see them. He had spoken up in the meeting, telling fellow Republicans that he could not be a “facilitator for a disastrous process and plan.”

As King walked to his office, reporters were spun a fantastic tale of Republican insurrection. King had 20—maybe 25—like-minded moderates ready to join him and vote down the rule on the continuing resolution—the vote that sets up the final vote, something that almost never fails. If King could bring down this continuing resolution, it would end the “pingpong” between the House and Senate and convince House Speaker John Boehner to break the glass case marked “clean CR.” Democrats would provide the ballast for a vote that funded the government and Obamacare—and nothing extraneous—while keeping the sequestration-level spending caps for the rest of the year.

6:31 p.m. The King story seemed credible—credible enough for Democrats, anyway. Reporters waited for the vote in the Speaker’s Lobby, the hall outside the House floor where members come out to chat with them. New Jersey Rep. Rob Andrews strolled by and did his damnedest to spread the story.

“I think they’re gonna lose on the rule,” he said. “They’re bleeding from both sides.”

But wasn’t Andrews worried that the Vitter Amendment, with its headline-ready promise of punishing Congress in the name of “fairness,” would win Democratic votes? That was the theory, wasn’t it?

“Another Republican theory is that there’s no global warming and the Earth is flat,” he said. “I don’t know what they’re thinking, but it’s unconscionable to take the young men and women around here who work as hard as they do and to take away their health benefits to make some political point.”

Andrews kept talking, slowly seeming to realize that trolling the GOP before the vote might not help his cause. “I’m whipping votes for their side!”

7:15 p.m. Maybe Andrews was whipping for the other side. The rule passed, with only six Republicans voting against it. Four of them were conservatives. King and Pennsylvania Rep. Charlie Dent were the only holdouts who could be reasonably referred to as moderates. Erica Elliot, a spokeswoman for Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, announced the vote totals and the names to a low chorus of reporter chuckling. New York Rep. Michael Grimm, another moderate who’d been whacking his party’s strategy, voted for the rule. “Peter King never talked to me about voting no,” he says.

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