WASHINGTON — Few memories haunt Republicans more deeply than the 1995-96 partial shutdown of the federal government, which helped President Bill Clinton reverse his falling fortunes and recast House Republicans as stubborn partisans, not savvy insurgents.
Now, as Congress careens toward a budget impasse, government insiders wonder if another shutdown is imminent — and whether Republicans again would suffer the most blame.
Leaders of both parties say they are determined to avoid a shutdown. But they have not yielded on the amount of spending cuts they will demand or accept. Meanwhile, shutdown talk is rippling through Washington and beyond.
"It's good for political rhetoric to talk about a government shutdown. But I don't know anybody that wants that to happen," Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., said on "Fox News Sunday."
Behind the scenes, Senate officials are spending Congress' President's Day recess week poring over the spending proposal passed by the House early Saturday, according to one Democratic leader.
"We are prepared to negotiate right away," Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said on CNN's "State of the Union."
The Obama administration is warning that workers who handle Social Security benefits might be furloughed. Almost hourly, top Democrats and Republicans accuse each other of pushing the government to the brink by being inflexible.
"So much is at stake if this great government shuts down," said House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi. "I would hope that instead of having ultimatums, we go forward with an approach that talks about how we keep government open."
The House Republican campaign committee said Democrats are "shouting for a shutdown."
For all the political drama and rhetoric, the actual stakes of a shutdown are not so dire for ordinary Americans. The military would stay active, interstate highways would remain open and government checks would be issued, although new applicants for benefits under programs such as Social Security might have their sign-ups delayed.
In fact, the federal government has had more than a dozen "shutdowns" since 1981. Some lasted only hours, and few are remembered.
The exception is the two-stage partial shutdown of 1995 and 1996. Then, as now, a Democratic president clashed over spending priorities with a recently installed Republican House majority. Then, as now, Congress had failed to fund the government for a full fiscal year, so agencies depended on a series of "continuing resolutions" to keep them in businesses while lawmakers feuded.
When Clinton in late 1995 vetoed a Republican-crafted spending bill — he called it insufficient for health care, education and other programs — parts of the government closed for six days.
After a brief truce, the parties clashed again. Hundreds of thousands of "non-essential" federal workers were furloughed for three weeks, from mid-December to early January. (Some workers eventually received back pay for missed days). National parks, museums, passport offices and other agencies closed.
Each party blamed the other. But public opinion soon swung toward Clinton and the Democrats. House Speaker Newt Gingrich didn't help himself by suggesting he had triggered the shutdown out of pique because Clinton had made him ride in the back of Air Force One. Friends called it the biggest mistake of Gingrich's career.
Republican lore portrays the 1995-96 shutdown as a political disaster. Lawmakers who lived through it have vowed: Never again.
"There's absolutely no way" House Republicans will allow a shutdown, said Rep. Jerry Lewis of California, first elected in 1978. "It was a big mistake when Newt did it."
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