Dems bring shutdown talk to Senate highway bill fight

Greg Nash

Democrats are rallying around “shutdown” as a new favorite buzzword as the Highway Trust Fund faces a $10 billion shortfall, and the annual bills funding government agencies have stalled.

Democrats are warning of a looming “highway shutdown,” implicitly comparing it to the government shutdown of 2013 that damaged the Republican brand.

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“Let’s do the right thing, avoid a ‘highway shutdown,’ ” Sen. Charles Schumer (N.Y.), the Senate Democrats’ messaging guru, tweeted.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) delivered a similar warning.

“We’re making progress, and when I talk about making progress, I’m talking about in preventing a — in effect — transportation equivalent of a government shutdown that would sideline tens of thousands of workers,” he said.

Wyden is talking to Republicans on his panel about addressing the highway shortfall. He has previously proposed fixing it by wringing more taxes out of certain retirement accounts, raising fees and improving tax compliance; Republicans are insisting on spending cuts.

Republicans say the Democratic rhetoric is over the top, arguing that, even if Congress fails to reach a deal on the Highway Trust Fund, people will not be barred from driving.

“The highways aren’t going to shut down,” said Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.). “The roads are there, and people can drive on them.”

Democrats say a so-called highway shutdown would resemble the 2013 government shutdown because it would cause thousands of people to lose their paychecks.

“It could have the same effect of putting hundreds of thousands out of work and putting another self-inflicted wound on the road to economic recovery,” said a senior Democratic aide.

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) told reporters Monday that Republicans were returning to their 2013 strategy of “governing by crisis.”

“Now we are headed for a transportation construction shutdown,” he said. 

Some Democrats warn another government shutdown could happen in October if Republicans object to a spending stopgap or to the annual appropriations bills.

“I want to say no on that, but I’ve seen what’s happened around here the last couple of years. I thought the last government shutdown was stupid, and if we do it again, it will be stupid,” said Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.), who is embroiled in a tough reelection race.

“Some of these people, I wouldn’t put it past them,” he said of the prospect of his GOP colleagues shutting down the government in the fall.

Democrats note that House Republicans nearly shut down the government in April of 2011 because of government subsidies to Planned Parenthood.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) last month accused Republicans of risking a partial government shutdown by targeting the Environmental Protection Agency with amendments to appropriations bills.

“We’ve had enough sequestrations and government shutdowns that I hope my Republican colleagues aren’t headed in that direction again, given the importance of appropriations legislation and the need to keep our government operating,” he said on the Senate floor.

The New Republic, a center-left magazine, predicted Republicans could shut down part of the government over environmental regulations.

“A standoff with Senate Democrats and the president over funding for the EPA and Interior Department could set the stage for a budget showdown, risking a partial government shutdown. Here we go again,” the magazine reported.  

Democrats postponed action on the energy and water spending bill to avoid a vote on an amendment curbing new regulations on coal-fired power plants.

And Reid pulled from the floor a mini-bus package funding the departments of Agriculture, Commerce, Justice, Transportation, and Housing and Urban Development because of a dispute with Republicans over amendments.

Senate Republican Conference Chairman John Thune (S.D.), however, last month dismissed the possibility of a shutdown provoked by new coal rules.

Sen. Mike Johanns (R-Neb.) said Republicans have no intention of risking their political momentum heading into the midterm election with a standoff over transportation funding. Republicans believe they are poised to take back the Senate majority they lost in the 2006 elections.

“There will be a big kerfuffle about a government shutdown and highway funding ending, but at the end of the day, it won’t happen,” he said.

Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) said there is no talk within the Senate Republican Conference of again holding the government funding stopgap hostage in an attempt to force Democrats to defund the Affordable Care Act or other policy concessions.

“I see zero chance of that. Nobody has even broached that topic,” he said.

But Democrats want to remind voters of the brinkmanship Republicans employed last year to stop the implementation of ObamaCare and in 2011 to pressure Democrats to cut discretionary spending levels.

The 2013 government shutdown sank the GOP’s approval rating, and Republican leaders called it a tactical mistake.

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) said afterward that his party would not repeat the experiment.

“There is no education in the second kick of a mule. There will not be a government shutdown,” he said. “I think we have fully now acquainted our new members with what a losing strategy that is.”

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