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Juan Williams: GOP leaders must pick a poison on shutdown

Juan Williams: GOP leaders must pick a poison on shutdown
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Here is the latest chapter in bang-your-head-on-the-wall, stupid, frustrating Congressional politics.

When the House and Senate get back to work tomorrow, the GOP majorities on both sides of Capitol Hill will be up against a September 30 deadline to pass a spending bill to keep the federal government open. That means funding the military, keeping Social Security checks going out and assuring global investors that the world’s leading economic power is not about to grind to a halt.

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If Congress fails to act, there will be a government shutdown weeks before a presidential election. In fact, early voting will be underway in several states.

In terms of the presidential race and the fight over control of the Senate, history tells us a government shutdown is a loser for Republicans.

In 2013, a majority of voters — 53 percent according to a Washington Post poll — blamed Republicans for the shutdown while only 29 percent blamed President Obama and the Democrats. The same was true in a 1996 shutdown — the majority of voters blamed the GOP-led Congress, not President Clinton.

But hardline conservatives in the House Freedom Caucus don’t care about history. They are willing to hold the federal government and fellow Republicans running for election hostage until GOP congressional leaders, Obama and the Democrats agree to more spending cuts.

The Freedom Caucus threats are specifically aimed at Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanOn The Money: Senate confirms Gensler to lead SEC | Senate GOP to face off over earmarks next week | Top Republican on House tax panel to retire Trump faces test of power with early endorsements Lobbying world MORE (R- Wis.). He finds himself in the same position as his predecessor, John BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerBoehner says he voted for Trump, didn't push back on election claims because he's retired Boehner: Trump's claims of stolen election a 'sad moment in American history' Trump digs in on attacks against Republican leaders MORE, who was forced by rebellious hardliners to walk the plank to early retirement almost a year ago.

At the moment, Freedom Caucus members are already upset with Ryan after the defeat of one of their most prominent members, Rep. Tim Huelskamp, in his Kansas primary last month. Caucus members are telling reporters Ryan did not do enough to help Huelskamp.

“How can you have a gang, and have one in your gang get stabbed, and do nothing?” one caucus member told the Huffington Post in an interview last week. “You got to stab somebody, or else what’s the point of having a gang?”

Also fueling anger inside the Freedom Caucus is the possibility that Ryan will not take up a resolution to impeach IRS Commissioner John Koskinen before the election.

Ryan is not saying if he will bring the Caucus-led measure to the floor for a vote. He has, however, expressed reservations about setting a precedent for impeaching a cabinet or sub-cabinet official, according to Bloomberg. The House hasn’t voted to impeach a Cabinet-level official in nearly 140 years. More than 100 law professors sent a letter to the Speaker last week urging him not to break the precedent. 

Meanwhile, Ryan is frustrated by the Freedom Caucus’ refusal to make deals on any of his top priorities as Speaker. The House hasn’t passed an official Republican budget; it has taken no action on a replacement to the Affordable Care Act; and Ryan is stymied on the Transpacific Partnership (TPP) because the GOP presidential nominee is running as an opponent of free trade.

And now — with the November election staring him in the face — Ryan finds himself in a high-profile showdown with those far-right members over the spending bill.

Freedom Caucus members say their only concern is restraining any growth in government spending. They are not persuaded by the fact that the federal deficit as a percentage of GDP has shrunk by about 75 percent since President Obama’s first year in office. In addition, between 2010 and 2014 discretionary spending as a percentage of GDP declined 25 percent. Meanwhile, “sequestration” has imposed fixed limits on spending since hardliners demanded it in 2013.

The easiest answer for Congress is to pass a short-term continuing resolution. That will kick the can down the road past November and into a lame duck session of Congress.

But the Freedom Caucus wants a multi-year deal with more sequestration-type restrictions. Their goal is to prevent a future Democrat in the White House and Democratic-majority in the Senate — both now likely — from passing a deal with more spending. Ryan is caught in the middle.

The window for Congress to pass a funding bill is narrow, with the House only scheduled to be in session for four weeks before the election.

That deadline pressure is putting Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellThe Memo: Biden puts 9/11 era in rear view Anti-Asian hate crimes bill overcomes first Senate hurdle Greitens Senate bid creates headache for GOP MORE (R-Ky.) on the defensive over the stalemate in the House. McConnell is trying to shield vulnerable Republican senators from being damaged by a government shutdown.

Earlier this year, it seemed a political certainty that the GOP would lose its Senate majority. But the latest New York Times forecast shows the Democrats with only a 56 percent chance of winning back control of the upper chamber.

McConnell doesn’t want to do anything to jeopardize his team’s recent gains in the polls.

At the same time, GOP senators such as Pennsylvania’s Pat Toomey, New Hampshire’s Kelly AyotteKelly Ann AyotteOvernight Defense: NATO expanding troops in Iraq Overnight Defense: New START extended for five years | Austin orders 'stand down' to tackle extremism | Panel recommends Biden delay Afghanistan withdrawal Study group recommends Biden delay Afghanistan withdrawal MORE and Wisconsin’s Ron JohnsonRonald (Ron) Harold JohnsonPelosi: Dropping 9/11-style Jan. 6 commission an 'option' amid opposition Wisconsin state Treasurer Sarah Godlewski launches Senate bid Biden picks vocal Trump critics to lead immigration agencies MORE have been measured in their criticism of their party’s presidential nominee, Donald TrumpDonald TrumpTrump mocks Murkowski, Cheney election chances Race debate grips Congress US reentry to Paris agreement adds momentum to cities' sustainability efforts MORE. They don’t want to antagonize his supporters. But if they fight the Freedom Caucus and vote for a temporary spending bill they are sure to anger some Trump’s backers.

Ryan and McConnell still have scars from the 2013 shutdown. Now they permit another shutdown or risk further dividing a party already split by its presidential nominee. Gentlemen, pick your poison.

Juan Williams is an author and political analyst for Fox News Channel. His latest book, "We The People: The Modern-Day Figures Who Have Reshaped and Affirmed the Founding Fathers' Vision of America" published by Crown, is out now.