By Alexandra Jaffe - 09/24/13 09:45 AM EDT
Conservative Republicans are confident they’ll avoid blame in 2014 if the government shuts down over the GOP’s push to defund ObamaCare, despite public polling and historical precedent that indicates the party is putting itself in political peril.
More than a half-dozen conservatives who voted for the House GOP’s continuing resolution (CR), which strips funding for President Obama’s signature healthcare law, refused to even speculate about the political fallout if their strategy fails and the government is shuttered.
“It’s not on us anymore. It’s on the Senate Democrats to come up with a solution.”
Added Rep. Bill Johnson (Ohio), one of the GOP’s two-dozen most vulnerable incumbents: “We’ve got to do the right thing for the American people. I’m more concerned about doing the right thing than the potential fallout.”
Several recent polls have shown a majority of voters are against the GOP’s strategy. A CNBC poll released Monday found 59 percent oppose the effort to use a shutdown threat to defund ObamaCare, and a plurality oppose any attempt to defund the healthcare law.
Ex-Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.), a veteran of the last government shutdown in 1995-96, warns House conservatives are taking a high-stakes gamble that — if it goes wrong — could imperil the Republican majority.
“It’s hard to see [a shutdown] putting [the House] in play, but it’s possible to fumble it that badly,” said Davis, a former chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee.
Democrats must climb a 17-seat mountain to regain the House majority, a difficult prospect in even the most favorable of political climates.
But Davis said the perception that Republicans are holding the government hostage has taken hold among voters and is already hurting the GOP politically.
“Democrats have a unified voice. They’ve got the big microphone, so their message is gonna be solid. Our message is different every day,” he said. “It’s a problem that can’t really be fixed.”
The 1995-96 government shutdown led to a loss of Republican seats in the House and gave President Clinton renewed vigor for future legislative fights.
If a shutdown occurs this time, it’s likely to be bigger and more painful than the one that happened nearly two decades ago, Davis said.
“Unlike the ‘95-’96 shutdown, this is the whole government. … The repercussions for the American people are more severe,” he said.
As recently as July, Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), a deputy majority whip, said it was “political suicide” to try and link the defunding of ObamaCare to a government shutdown.
But almost to a person, conservative House members contacted by The Hill said voters would fault Obama and Senate Democrats if the government shuts down.
“The only way to fund the government is if [Senate Majority leader Harry] Reid [D-Nev.] and the majority of Democratic senators vote to pass the bill we’re sending them,” Rep. Steve Southerland (R-Fla.), a staunch conservative considered vulnerable in 2014, told The Hill.
Rep. Bill Cassidy (R-La.), who’s running for Senate, accused Obama of wanting to “exact pain” on the American people with a shutdown.
“Maybe the president wants some scenario where he can shut down the government, exacting pain, shutting down the White House [to tours] while he continues to play golf and blame it on Republicans,” Cassidy said. “I have no doubt if he can pull that off he’ll do it.”
Some Republicans believe the party needs only do a better job selling its message.
Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), said that “it’s our responsibility” to change the perception that Republicans are gunning for a shutdown.
“The American people are pretty smart,” Blackburn said.
“The American people will see when we keep offering ideas and somebody keeps saying, it’s my way or the highway, I think they’re pretty smart to that. I think you can look at the president’s polling numbers and see they’re figuring that out.”
The shutdown threat plays into Democrats’ 2014 strategy of casting Republicans as obstructionists without any solutions to the nation’s woes.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and House Majority PAC, which works to elect Democrats in the House, have already begun targeting Republicans facing tough reelection fights.
Last week, House Majority PAC accused vulnerable House Republicans of joining “the Tea Party Republican ‘suicide squad’ and mov[ing] our nation one step closer to a disastrous government shutdown.”
Southerland insists he is not concerned.
“I don’t think that what [Democrats] think has any bearing on what I do. I expect Democrats to be Democrats,” he said.
“That doesn’t weigh on me doing what I know is in keeping with what the American people want.”
Davis warned that the GOP has put itself between a rock and a hard place by forcing a showdown over a shutdown.
Not only are Republicans jeopardizing support in the general electorate if a shutdown occurs, they now also risk alienating their base if they ultimately “roll over” and pass a spending bill that funds ObamaCare.
“It doesn’t play well for Republicans to just tuck tail and run,” Davis said, noting that outside conservative groups seem to “want to draw blood” on Republicans who compromise at all.
Indeed, groups pushing Republicans to adopt a shutdown strategy for the past two months say they won’t let up on House members, even if the Senate fails to keep the ObamaCare defund provision in the final version of the continuing resolution.
Matt Hoskins, executive director of the Senate Conservatives Fund, said his group would “absolutely” continue to put pressure on House Republicans if the Senate sends a clean CR back to the House.