There's no doubt where Mitch McConnell stands on the question of shutting down the government. "There will be no government shutdowns," the incoming Senate Majority Leader vowed the day after the midterms.
To bolster McConnell's point, his staff recently produced a memo citing polls showing public opinion of Republicans plunging during the October 2013 shutdown — and only now climbing back to pre-shutdown levels. To Team McConnell, it's an open-and-shut case: No more shutdowns.
But today's political world is far different from last year's. First, Republicans are contemplating answering President Obama's expected unilateral immigration action in ways that do not involve a government shutdown. And second, in light of the midterm results, some in the GOP are recognizing the original shutdown did not end up having the political effects that were once predicted.
First, the GOP response to Obama's anticipated order. The only thing Republicans will do in the lame duck session — that is, before they take control of the Senate, and keep control of the House, in January — is to make sure a short-term government funding bill is passed by the time the current one expires on Dec. 11.
Then in January, with the GOP in control — and, presumably, Obama's edict in hand — Republicans will work on crafting a new spending measure that funds the entire government, with the exception of the particular federal offices that will do the specific work of enforcing Obama's order.
Republican sources liken the contemplated action to Congress' move to stop the president from closing the terrorist detention facility at Guantanamo Bay. In 2009, lawmakers denied Obama the money he would have needed to proceed. Guantanamo remains open.
Senate Republicans need to know more before deciding on a specific strategy. First, they don't know how Obama plans to fund his action. Second, if most of the work is done through the Department of Homeland Security, Republicans will try to craft a measure to stop funding for the specific immigration operation without affecting any national security priorities.
"We are hashing this out internally, and there is not yet consensus on how to proceed," says one Republican. "This is a very delicate situation. We want to do the right thing. Everyone is aware of what a provocation it is."
Once GOP leaders decide on a course of action, there's little doubt it will have the support of all 54 Republicans expected to be in the Senate next year. (That's assuming Bill Cassidy wins in Louisiana.) But will some Democrats join to push the GOP over the 60-vote filibuster threshold? A number of Republicans believe they will.
But even if a move to counter Obama passes the Senate with 60 votes, the president will veto it. At that point, a shutdown battle could occur — but it would be a battle over shutting down the small part of the federal government tasked with enforcing the immigration order. Everything else would remain up and running.
That's a far cry from what happened in October 2013. And now, in light of the GOP's midterm victories, some Republicans are re-assessing that epic shutdown battle, too.
At the time, many pundits in both parties saw Republicans throwing away any chance of victory in the 2014 midterms. "[Republican] Party veterans say they are increasingly concerned that a prolonged standoff in Washington could damage their prospects for winning back the Senate in 2014," the Washington Post reported on October 3, 2013, as the two-week shutdown was just beginning.
But look at what happened. The shutdown so deeply damaged GOP prospects that Republicans exceeded expectations in 2014, winning control of the Senate in spectacular fashion and making unexpected gains in the House. The shutdown was so terrible that some of those headstrong House Republicans who voted to defund Obamcare last year — Tom Cotton, Steve Daines, Shelley Moore Capito — are now headed to the U.S. Senate. (Cassidy too, if he wins.)
If the big shutdown didn't damage GOP prospects just 12 months later, would a tightly limited defunding battle be such a problem?
There are other differences between then and now. For example, when Republicans tried to defund Obamacare, they were going after a law that had been passed by Congress, signed by the president, and upheld by the Supreme Court. Immigration reform made it through the Senate but never even passed the House.
And then there is the biggest difference of all: the Republican majority. A defunding strategy based on 45 Republican senators, as the GOP attempted in 2013, could never work. A defunding strategy on a different issue — far more focused, and backed by 54 Republican senators — is something else entirely.