In Shadow of 1995, G.O.P. Freshmen Stand Firm
Stephen Crowley/The New York Times
Published: February 28, 2011
WASHINGTON — The specter of the 1995 government shutdown hangs over Capitol Hill, a memory many hoped to leave behind, along with beepers and episodes of “Baywatch Nights.”
That budget battle has become the central reference point for the fiscal fight that begins in earnest this week. For veteran Republicans, including some of today’s party leaders, being blamed for the shutdown was a searing experience, one they have long endeavored to avoid repeating.
But for some lawmakers in the new Republican freshman class, the circumstances and stakes of a budget showdown are quite different today. They frame their mission less as a one-term spending fight than as a crusade to redefine the role of the federal government in American life.
Many freshmen believe a government shutdown should — and indeed will — be avoided. “I am committed to finding that point at which we can make reductions and get this fiscal ship turned around while finding a way to keep government from shutting down,” said Representative Kevin Yoder of Kansas.
But a far greater failure, many freshmen lawmakers say, would be to capitulate on the only issue many of them ran on. Arguing that the nation’s economic conditions and their mandate from voters demand bold solutions, the freshmen’s resolve may give the House speaker, John A. Boehner, less maneuvering room in the hopes of averting a shutdown.
“I don’t believe now and 1995 are similar times,” said Representative Lou Barletta, a freshman from Pennsylvania. “Back then it was more about how to balance the budget. Now it is about how to keep the country from going broke. Unemployment was much lower than now. The debt was 5 trillion. Now it is 14 trillion. In 1995 the Congress wanted to get its house in order. Now it’s the American people that want that, and that’s the only reason why we are here.”
The House and Senate will probably avoid a shutdown in the short term, with a spending plan that includes $4 billion in cuts and that finances the government through March 18; the House is set to vote on that measure on Tuesday.
Throughout the opening weeks of this Congress, the freshmen have exerted a palpable influence, upsetting the plans of their leaders on a number of fronts. On no issue have they been more vocal than on budget cutting and reducing the size of government. Before proposing the two-week budget deal last week, Mr. Boehner and other Republican leaders conducted a conference call with the 87 freshmen members to explain their thinking, and get their blessing — a testament to the power of the class.
But beyond the short-term plan, the House and Senate must still wrangle over how to finance the government for the rest of the fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30, and freshmen are still bent on cutting at least $61 billion in federal spending.
On Monday night, Mr. Boehner met with Senate majority leader Harry Reid to discuss budget matters.
While the freshmen members disagree within their own caucus over which specific programs need to be cut, they agree that the government should reduce its role substantially in areas ranging from environmental regulations and education to public broadcasting and the arts. They feel that their credibility is on the line.
“This is not just some academic exercise for me,” said Representative Todd Rokita, a freshman from Indiana. “I am trying to actually shrink scope and size of government.”
He added, “If Harry Reid comes back and says no spending cuts, no nothing, at that point I feel I have no choice given what I ran on, given what I got 70 percent of the vote on, I have to shut down the government.”
As Republican lawmakers returned this week to Washington after a week in their districts, they had perhaps even more determination than when they left. In town hall-style meetings and constituent coffees, they said, the refrain remained the same. There was “universal agreement that the issues facing our country right now are very critical,” said Representative Steve Womack, a freshman from Arkansas, and voters encouraged him to “stand our ground and stay the course.”
To some degree, the view of 1995 depends on each member’s experience at that time. Representative Trey Gowdy, another freshman, was a federal prosecutor in South Carolina.
“I remember it like it was yesterday,” he said, “having conversations with my fellow prosecutors about whether or not we had a job to come to and whether we were essential. My supervisor assured us we were not.” As such, Mr. Gowdy said, a shutdown, “will not be good for people who are innocent bystanders.”
In contrast, Mr. Rokita “was 25 years old, in my last year of law school at an all-male college, so my mind was on my career and women and not so much the federal government.” He said that the difference in temperament between Mr. Boehner and Newt Gingrich, the speaker in 1995, was critical: “Boehner is not sticking fingers in people’s eyes.”
What is more, in the view of Mr. Rokita and some other freshmen, their attitudes are getting a far broader and sympathetic airing than those of their Republican brethren of 1995.
“Quite honestly, the major newspapers had a stranglehold on political news in 1995,” Mr. Rokita said. “Now you have cable on both sides. People can much more easily choose the news they watch, and I am able to get my messaging out, or I can at least make a case.”
In November 1995, President Bill Clinton vetoed a continuing resolution that would have kept the government running amid a budget impasse, resulting in a partial shutdown.
Today, the party’s leaders are promoting the message that cuts can be made through a compromise with Democrats that would avoid a costly, disruptive and damaging shutdown. Eric Cantor, the Virginia Republican and majority leader, said as much Monday in a meeting with reporters. “We can keep the government open and cut spending,” he said.
Representative James Lankford, a freshman from Oklahoma, said, “I never hear John Boehner talking about a shutdown, and I never have.” Whether it will come to that will be determined in the weeks to come.
“It’s unknowable,” said Representative David Schweikert of Arizona, another freshman. “We have to see where the Senate comes back. A shutdown is not out of the question.”