This is the fifth time since 1981 that a budget fight has shut down the government, but this is not just another round of the same old Washington shenanigans.
No, both President Clinton and the Republican-controlled Congress see this shutdown as the opening round - perhaps the defining round - of a fight that will shape the direction of the country and their own political futures.
Republicans are staking everything on their plan to balance the budget in seven years. That was the cornerstone of the “Contract With America” that House Republicans pledged last fall to enact if they won control of Congress. Today they see it as the key to their future claim on voters’ trust.
“The American people are sick and tired of excuses for inaction to balance the budget,” insists freshman Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa. “The public wants us to stay the course toward a balanced budget, and we take that obligation quite seriously. Unfortunately, the president views it as a campaign stunt.”
Clinton, in contrast, is betting that voters will trust him as their protector from Republicans he portrays as extremists bent on slashing Medicare, education and environmental protections in their zeal to balance the budget.
The president insists he wants to balance the budget, too - just more slowly, over 10 years, with less severe curbs on spending - but the Congressional Budget Office says his numbers do not come close to balancing the budget.
Clinton, nevertheless, is winning - big. Six months ago he was close to dead meat politically, left for road kill by the November GOP landslide. But he has bounced back since he began leading the charge against the GOP budget.
Clinton’s approval ratings now hover around 50 percent, among the highest of his presidency. His disapproval ratings are sinking while they soar for House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga.
In addition, the latest NBC News/ Wall Street Journal poll found 61 percent want Clinton to veto the GOP budget. An overnight ABC News poll found 46 percent blamed Congress for Tuesday’s shutdown; only 27 percent blamed Clinton.
A Times Mirror Center poll released Tuesday found 73 percent of Americans are dissatisfied with “the way things are going” but only 7 percent blamed Clinton, while 35 percent blamed Congress.
Perhaps most significantly, Clinton’s internal polls now show him favored in 1996 over Sen. Bob Dole, the GOP front-runner, even in such conservative states as Louisiana and Kentucky, and within 2 points in mega-state Florida.
With that kind of political tide running his way, Clinton refuses to compromise. Instead he wastes no opportunity to blast Republicans and their budget in harshest terms, as he did Tuesday in the White House briefing room after blaming them for the shutdown.
“We can balance the budget with out doing what they seek to do … without the deep cuts in education, without the deep cuts in the environment, without letting Medicare wither on the vine, without imposing tax increases on the hardest-pressed working families in America. I am fighting for a balanced budget that is good for America and consistent with our values.”
GOP leaders responded with fury.
“He has to try to create a phony argument about fantasy cuts that do not exist in order to frighten people about problems that aren’t real,” said Gingrich.
Senate Budget Committee Chairman Pete Domenici, R-N.M., denounced Clinton’s speech as filled with “half-truths” and “misstatements,” and vowed that Republicans will “hold your feet to the fire on the balanced budget” because they don’t trust him.
Top White House aides are confi dent Clinton is playing a winning hand, and they insist he is doing it out of conviction and principle, not political expedience.
“I think most of the public believes that the president’s staking out common ground on the budget is the right way to go,” George Stephanopoulos told reporters over breakfast.
Even if voters grow disgusted by results like this week’s shutdown and seek a third party candidate next fall, Stephanopoulos said, “we can’t worry about those kinds of political consequences. … I’ve heard the president say many times privately (that) if fighting their contract, fighting their cuts in Medicare and Medicaid, puts his re-election at risk, then that’s a price he’s going to have to pay.”
In fact it’s a fight both Clinton and top Republicans seem eager to wage.
“What’s really at stake here from Gingrich’s perspective is a possible run for the presidency,” suggested Rep. John Myers, R-Ind., a House veteran. “If he wins in this showdown with the president, I’m almost certain he’ll run against him next year. If he doesn’t come out a clear winner, I think he’ll put his presidential ambitions on hold.”
Newt’s troops are ready for war.
“There’s an impasse not only because the president wants it that way now, but because the House Republicans, especially the new ones, won’t bend. … In a way, they’re playing right into his hands,” said Tom Korologos, an influential lobbyist and former top aide to President Reagan.
Some Senate Republicans won’t bend either.
“I’m not going to negotiate with Bill Clinton on backing away from the tax cut we proposed, and I’m not going to negotiate with him on raising the total level of spending we have in our budget,” said Sen. Phil Gramm, the conservative Texan who wants Clinton’s job. “Those are the issues that we will take to the voters (next year), and we will win that argument.”
So even after the short-term shut down ends, this budget struggle could well stretch until next November’s elections, for the winner will set the direction of America’s government for the rest of the century and beyond.
“Well, the president’s made it very clear what he’s fighting for and the type of budget he’s fighting for, and if it takes all the way through next year to achieve that, that will be the result,” said White House Press Secretary Mike McCurry.