(Bloomberg) — A government shutdown is likely to inflict widespread political damage in Washington, but congressional Republicans could get the largest share of the blame — whether they backed the gambit or not.
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With the deadline to reach a spending deal approaching Sunday, House Republicans remain unable to agree on how to move forward. That means that a shutdown that could disrupt the lives of millions of Americans, and potentially throw the economy into recession if it drags on, is all but certain.
The fallout is likely to spread across the political spectrum. It poses risks for President Joe Biden, who must sell voters on his economic leadership, and for his likely opponent in 2024, Donald Trump, who has cheered on holdout Republicans blocking a budget pact.
A poll from Monmouth University, released this week, showed 43% of Americans would blame Republicans in Congress for a shutdown, while 27% would blame Biden and 21% would hold congressional Democrats responsible.
Republicans — who currently have a slim House majority — have been hit by such a backlash before, when past spending fights also led to US government services going dark. This time, Democrats have ample fodder to pin the blame not just on Trump-aligned Republicans, but also on GOP moderates who face tough reelection fights in Democratic areas.
“We’ll get our teeth kicked in in terms of messaging,” said Kevin Roberts, president of the right-leaning Heritage Foundation. “I don’t think in my lifetime the political right has won the messaging of a government shutdown.”
The shutdown is another blow for House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, who is trying to prove he can lead a fractured party. Yet the fissures in Congress are also plain to see on the campaign trail. At the second GOP presidential debate Wednesday, which Trump skipped, none of the candidates on stage cheered a shutdown.
Read more: The Shutdown Seven: Here Are Lawmakers to Watch in Negotiations
“All of us know where the problems lie. It is not the Republicans per se. It is four to five Republicans,” said G. William Hoagland, a senior vice president at the Bipartisan Policy Center and a longtime former GOP staffer on budget policy. “Inside the Beltway, we can all point to those individuals, but outside the Beltway, they don’t differentiate.”
“The American public will not favor either party if there is a government shutdown. They will blame all of us,” said Hoagland.
Biden faces risks if a shutdown further imperils a US economy already being tested by an auto-worker strike, higher interest rates and rising oil prices. Recent polls show the Democratic president in a dead heat with Trump in a potential 2024 rematch.
“Funding the government is one of the most basic fundamental responsibilities of the Congress,” Biden said at the White House on Monday. “And if Republicans in the House don’t start doing their job, we should stop electing them.”
Democrats are betting they can use a shutdown to further cast the GOP as too extreme. That message worked in 2022, when they lost fewer seats than expected in the House and kept control of the Senate by painting Republicans as too far right on abortion.
Biden’s team also sees an opportunity to argue that the Republican Party’s divisions have made it incapable of governing — and that the shutdown is yet another sign that many in the GOP are still taking their cues from Trump.
“House Republicans are gleefully letting Donald Trump function as their chief political strategist at the expense of American families,” Biden campaign spokesman Kevin Munoz said in a statement.
A poll from Morning Consult released Sept. 26 showed that 46% of voters blamed the shutdown on Democrats and Republicans fighting on Capitol Hill instead of pinning the blame on just one party.
The White House has said a shutdown could lead to military service members and law-enforcement officers working without pay, delayed food-safety inspections, long lines at airports and slowdowns on road and bridge projects. Moody’s Analytics has warned that a shutdown would threaten the US’s triple-A credit rating.
In the US House, the stakes are particularly high for McCarthy and GOP colleagues from competitive swing districts.
Mike Lawler, who represents a district in the New York suburbs, is among a group of lawmakers who have signaled they might join a bipartisan resolution to end a long shutdown. The first-term Congressman said this week that Republicans pushing for a protracted shutdown “have, frankly, been stuck on stupid.”
Lee Miringoff, director of the Marist College Institute for Public Opinion in Poughkeepsie, New York, said holding out a hand to Democrats provides Lawler and other moderates in districts Biden won in 2020 “a bit of cover” in the event of a shutdown.
“These are tough districts for Republicans,” Miringoff said. “And the upcoming presidential election will skew these districts even more to Democrats.”
McCarthy could throw lawmakers like Lawler a lifeline with a vote on a bipartisan bill to temporarily extend the funding of the government. That could stave off a shutdown, but would likely be met with an effort by conservatives to oust McCarthy as speaker.
Mick Mulvaney, a former Republican congressman and Trump’s White House chief of staff during the last government shutdown in 2019, which lasted 35 days, said that the lack of unity among Republicans has left McCarthy in a bind.
“It’s not a caucus thing,” said Mulvaney. “It’s a bunch of individuals running around making demands for their vote, and that can really be a formula for failure.”
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Abhinav Thawait is a globe-trotting correspondent with a passion for international affairs. With a background in international relations, he offers a global perspective on the most pressing issues around the world. Abhinav’s curiosity takes his to the far corners of the earth, where he seeks to share untold stories and diverse viewpoints.