GOP rejects prospect of a government shutdown over spending debate

Republicans are playing down talk that fights with the White House over spending cuts could lead to a government shutdown. 

“It is not something that I ever envision happening,” said Rep. Tom Latham (R-Iowa), the chairman of the House Appropriations Transportation subcommittee and a close ally of Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio). 

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“We’ve been clear all along: Our goal is cutting government spending to help create jobs — not shutting down the government,” said Michael Steel, a spokesman for Boehner. 

Republicans are wary of what happened to former Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), who lost a public-relations war with President Clinton after a government shutdown in 1995. 

“Gingrich managed to turn a very unpopular President Clinton into a comparably favorable-looking character,” said Tom Jensen, the director of Public Policy Polling. “Clinton was the one who looked more reasonable.”

He said the new Republican majority must be careful not to get painted as too extreme by the Obama White House. 

“If Republicans want to hold on to what they gained in November, if they want to take the White House, they can’t let that happen again. They have to make sure Obama is the liberal extremist.”

Conservative activists like Grover Norquist, the president of Americans for Tax Reform, have said Republicans should be willing to force a government shutdown to reduce spending. 

But Norquist praised House Republicans for adopting exactly the right rhetorical tone on the subject of a shutdown, which he said will help them avoid being cast as eager to force such a scenario. 

In an interview, Norquist also said the GOP should focus on discretionary spending cuts this year. Entitlement reform and a balanced budget can only come with a Republican in the White House, he said.

A spending showdown looms on March 4, when a resolution funding the government expires. The White House and Republicans face a second showdown over the need to raise the nation’s $14.3 trillion debt ceiling this spring, though Republicans increasingly are saying they will allow the ceiling to be raised.

Gingrich told House Republicans at their annual retreat Friday that there are many lessons to be learned from the showdown he had with Clinton. A source in the room said Gingrich cited the 1995 confrontation with Clinton over a balanced budget and said Democrats won the message war and Republicans took much of the blame for the impasse.

Molly K. Hooper contributed to this story.