House Republicans Will Win the Shutdown by Proving That Harry Reid Loves Cancer

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
Oct. 3 2013 1:43 PM

House Republicans Will Win the Shutdown by Proving That Harry Reid Loves Cancer

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Does he love it, or just like-like it?

Photo by Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

Congress has stayed in town since the start of the government shutdown. "Good!" you might say, naively. "That would give them time to hash out a deal. Wouldn't it?" 

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

You know, maybe if Congress were composed of entirely different people, maybe it would. In reality, Congress is sticking around to pass point-scoring bills and hold press conferences in an attempt to shift the narrative—Democrats to insist that Republicans are feckless, Republicans to insist that Democrats are unreasonable. 

Here's the best example of how the whole sorry drama plays out. On Tuesday, House Republicans attempted to embarrass Democrats—and to fund some government functions that become political kryptonite if not funded—by passing three small CRs to fund the parks, veterans affairs, and the District of Columbia. This failed thanks to a too-cute attempt to pass the package without allowing Democrats a chance to amend it. On Wednesday, Republicans proposed those bills again, but under normal rules, and with another tweak. They would also attempt to fund the National Institutes of Health. Some news stories on Tuesday and Wednesday had woken them up to just how bad a defunded NIH would look.

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"If the shutdown persists," reported Joel Achenbach, "it could affect about 200 people per week who, under normal circumstances, would be admitted to new trials, said John T. Burklow, an NIH spokesman. On average, about 30 of those new patients would be children, and about 10 would be children with cancer, he said."

Kids with cancer? Kids with cancer! Obviously Republicans couldn't let that happen in such a public way. They announced that they'd pass a bill, hoping to deprive Senate Democrats of a talking point. It worked. CNN's Dana Bash asked Senate Democratic leaders if they'd back the new piecemeal bill.

"What right do they have to pick and choose what parts of government can be funded?" asked Reid.

"But if you can help one child with cancer, why wouldn't you?" asked Bash.

This was a formulation that Democrats often used to argue for gun legislation—why not ban large magazines, if one life could be saved. It's a dumb question, but hell, it's basically the Democrats' question when other impasses like this come up. Hearing it turned against them, Senate Democrats were baffled.

"Why pit one against the other?" asked Chuck Schumer.

"Why would we want to do that?" asked Reid, keying off Bash. "I have 1,100 people at Nellis Air Force base that are sitting home." He concluded by asking why someone of Bash's "intelligence" would ask something so silly. The video below reveals the gobsmacked faces of reporters.

Reid had made a mistake—a gaffe, if you will. He could have said something about how his Democrats had passed several continuing resolutions that would have funded the NIH, or that the sequestration cuts also tagged the NIH, or that the Republican budget recommendations also cut back NIH funding, or that there were probably plenty of poor kids with TV movie ailments in states where Republicans had opted out of the Medicaid expansion—well, whatever, instead he rejected the premise and insulted the reporter. He did not actually say "I don't care about kids with cancer," but his partial quote was enough to make the Drudge Report, Hannity, and the rest of the reliable wurlitzers of conservative opinion. On Thursday morning, Republicans attempted to press the advantage that they thought they had with a press conference led by their "doctors caucus," members clad in doctors' white coats.

What followed was a bona fide sympathy-off. The winner, clearly, was North Carolina Rep. Renee Ellmers, who won her seat in 2010 largely because her jerk Democratic opponent violently bear-hugged a video tracker, and who is safe until 2022 at least because of gerrymandering. Ellmers teared up as she talked of hope being taken away from families—"I say to Harry Reid in the Senate, bring this up for a vote! Don't take hope away from those families!  Don't take hope away from those moms!"

The Republicans' goal: take credit for trying to save cancer kids from heartless Democrats. They know that they started this fight being blamed by voters, the media, and people who pay attention to things for shutting down the government because they made the demand to defund Obamacare in a CR. It's on the field of Derp that they believe the Shutdown War will be won.

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

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