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The federal government hasn’t even shut down yet, but the blame game has already begun.
That’s because the stakes are big. The party, or branch of government, that bears the blame of a shutdown could face political consequences in 2024. In past shutdowns, voters have largely put the fault with Republicans, who portray themselves as the party of limited government, for massive furloughs of government employees and a nationwide pause in many federal services.
Even Republicans say it may be difficult to shift blame for a shutdown away from members of their party this time.
“Republicans are likely to shoulder the blame,” said former Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.), who is now a lobbyist with Holland & Knight. Even if it’s just a few Republicans who seem to relish a shutdown, the GOP, “as a governing party, is just not showing their chops,” he said.
The Republican Main Street Partnership and the group Women2Women put out polling recently showing that even among GOP primary voters, half think their own party would be at least partially to blame and half think the Democrats would take the blame. In another poll, the group found that a plurality of voters think Republicans will be the most to blame if the government shuts down at 38%, while 17% think voters will blame President Joe Biden.
“Shutdowns are never good and the American people are never happy with a shutdown, and usually unfortunately it ends up on Republicans’ lap,” said Sarah Chamberlain, president and CEO of the Republican Main Street Partnership, in an interview.
Main Street members in swing districts, she added, “would suffer the most” in potential electoral consequences.
Flipping the Narrative
As the White House hammers House Republicans for a potential government shutdown, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) is trying to flip the narrative.
“The president can keep the country open and secure our border,” McCarthy told reporters, referring to a House GOP-led bill that would fund the government and include a conservative border measure.
McCarthy blamed Biden and congressional Democrats for likely failing to fund the government past Sept. 30 this week, while lawmakers on the left pointed to infighting in the House GOP.
“It’s hard to see how this helps the party in a general election,” said Peter Trubowitz, a professor at the London School of Economics who specializes in US politics — though individual dissidents in conservative districts could benefit by boosting their political visibility. “So it might be dysfunctional for the party, but it’s functional for individuals.”
Whether McCarthy’s messaging strategy against Biden will succeed could depend on whether his own chamber is able to pass its own government funding measure. The continuing resolution with broad spending cuts and a border measure would only get Republican votes, so McCarthy’s ability to pass it will hinge on far-right members of his party who have blocked floor action repeatedly to secure policy wins.
Regardless of who causes a shutdown, Boise State University political science assistant professor Charles Hunt said the president generally takes some of the blame because of his visibility.
“The president has this status as the public face of government, the one face that all Americans know besides Taylor Swift,” Hunt said.
Davis said that if McCarthy were to put a Senate stop-gap measure on the floor, triggering the speaker’s fellow GOP opponents to try to remove him from his top role, “at that point, it’s up to the Democrats” to have McCarthy’s back. And if they don’t signal that, they could take some of the blame, too, Davis said.
House Republicans need to prove they can govern by passing a continuing resolution to pass some of the blame for a shutdown to the president, political communications strategist John Feehery said. A GOP-only House bill would be unlikely to become law, but it would serve as a starting point in negotiations with Democrats on how to fund the government.
Former President Donald Trump bore much of the blame for the 2018 government shutdown over border security, but Hunt noted that he was more vocal about owning the shutdown than Biden has been. Biden, in contrast, has left the discussions on how to fund the government past this week to House lawmakers.
McCarthy wants to change that. He said he wants to meet with Biden to hammer out a plan to fund the government and create new border security measures, similar to how the two negotiated to raise the debt limit earlier this year. Asked by reporters how likely a shutdown looks earlier this week, McCarthy replied that “you’d have to ask the president.”
The White House threw its weight behind a Senate-led bipartisan proposal that would fund the government through Nov. 17 and include aid for disasters and the war in Ukraine. Multiple Republicans have said the bill is dead on arrival in the House if the Senate sends it over.
“House Republicans should join the Senate in doing their job, stop playing political games with peoples’ lives, and abide by the bipartisan deal two-thirds of them voted for in May,” White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said in a statement.
Mainstream House Republicans are also working to distance themselves from the far-right dissidents who have held up action on the House floor. McCarthy said any Republicans who vote against a continuing resolution that includes HR 2, a conservative border bill, are supporting the Biden administration’s immigration policies.
But the speaker’s messaging strategy runs into opposition from his own party.
“We do care about securing our borders,” Rep. Cory Mills (R-Fla.), who opposes a CR, said. “We’ve made that a top priority, which is why I think the pressure needs to be placed on the Senate.”
Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), the House’s leading McCarthy critic, said progress within the House GOP is happening in spite of the speaker, not because of his leadership.
“He hasn’t really been in the room for any of the negotiations,” Gaetz said last week, “and that’s probably why we’ve been able to make some progress.”