Government shutdown on the lips of Senate Democrats, not Republicans

Senate Democrats are talking about a possible government shutdown more than Republicans, a sign that Democrats are confident they have the political edge on the issue.

Senate Democrats have met with senior White House officials in preparation for an intense clash with Republicans over government spending levels and a proposal to increase the national debt ceiling.

The three highest-ranking Senate Democratic leaders warned on Thursday that a shutdown is a real possibility.

“One thing we can't do is take extreme steps like shutting down the government and forcing the United States government to default on its obligations,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) declared.

Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) warned: “Too many Republicans seem to want to force a government shutdown.

“That would be the same mistake they made in 1995,” he said in reference to the government shutdown that resulted from the budget stalemate between then-President Clinton and Republicans led by former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.). “It would be an even bigger mistake now. It's playing with fire.”

A CNN poll from late December showed that 71 percent of people think that a government shutdown lasting a few weeks because of a congressional impasse would be a crisis or a major problem.

Republicans counter that Democratic leaders are trying to gin up the issue to give themselves a political boost.

Clinton’s 1995 showdown with Gingrich was largely seen as a disaster for congressional Republicans that gave the president new life after Democrats suffered a shellacking in the 1994 midterm election.

“As Republicans focus on constructive ways for the two parties to work together on cutting spending and debt, Sen. Schumer seems strangely preoccupied with the notion of a government shutdown,” said Don Stewart, a spokesman for Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.).

“It is our hope that he soon realizes the only person talking about a shutdown is Sen. Schumer,” Stewart added.

Even the Senate’s most conservative Republicans have said they do not want a government shutdown.

“I don’t think anybody wants a government shutdown or the government to default,” said Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), a member of the Senate Tea Party Caucus.

Paul also said that keeping government funding at 2010 funding levels is unacceptable but that he’s not willing to force a shutdown to push back against Democrats.

“Nobody is saying that’s what we want,” Paul said. “We want reform of the budget process. We want a balanced budget. We want less spending.

“It’s not an either-or situation,” he said. “It’s not we fund [government] at the president’s level or shut it down.”

Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) said Democratic concerns about a government shutdown are trumped-up.

“This crap that’s being put out now isn’t about anything true, it’s about a political agenda,” he said. “The American people want a fix and they want us to do it together, and nobody is talking about shutting down the government.”

A Senate Democratic aide, however, noted that McConnell declined to rule out the possibility of a shutdown when asked over the weekend on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

“You’ve had a number of junior Republican members of the House say they are willing to push it all the way to a shutdown,” said the aide. “They don’t have a memory of how poorly it was received. The leaders have encouraged the rabble-rousing by refusing to take it off the table.”

Senate Democrats met Thursday afternoon with Jack Lew, the White House budget director, who served as deputy White House budget director during the 1995 shutdown.

Senate Democrats have begun to coalesce around the position that no federal spending should be cut in 2011, setting up a showdown with House Republicans.

House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) introduced a plan to cut $32 billion in federal spending for the rest of 2011.

Democrats have decided that federal spending levels should remain the same for the rest of the year and steps should be taken to reduce the federal cost curve in 2012 and beyond.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) blasted Ryan’s proposal as “draconian” and “unworkable”.

He said Democrats would wait for a deficit-reduction package being negotiated by Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), who met Wednesday evening with Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner.

“It is unwise to do much in 2011, that was the conclusion of all the bipartisan commissions,” said Conrad, in reference to President Obama’s fiscal commission and a task force chaired by former Sen. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.) and former Clinton budget director Alice Rivlin.

“They’ve said don’t do much in 2011,” Conrad said. “Start in 2012 and 2013, but then have a really bold package for the rest of the decade. That’s been [what] most of the economic advice has been to the Budget Committee.”