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 Slate political reporter. 

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.”

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.

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?

“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!”