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October 31, 2014

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Both parties seek political upper hand as shutdown drags on

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ASSOCIATED PRESS

Normally filled with visitors and tourists, the empty Rotunda at the U.S. Capitol is seen in Washington, Tuesday, Oct. 1, 2013, after officials suspended all organized tours of the Capitol and the Capitol Visitors Center as part of the government shutdown. A statue of President Gerald R. Ford at center is illuminated amid large paintings illustrating the history of the United States.

As the federal government heads into its second week of shutdown, lawmakers are doubling down on their messaging, which for both sides, is pretty much this: We want to get the government up and running, it’s the other party that won’t compromise.

The costs of the government shutdown are clear: Federal workers have temporarily lost their jobs and their pay, tourists are being inconvenienced in droves, and private businesses that rely on those two groups are feeling an economic kick in the gut.

But in Congress, could there be a fringe political benefit to dragging this out?

“Democrats think so, obviously,” said Jennifer Duffy, senior editor with the Cook Political Report. “They think that at the end of the day, they win, because people blame this on Republicans.”

“Republicans don’t see a particular incentive to back down … the political incentives for the individual members of the House favor confrontation,” said Peter Hanson, political scientist at the University of Denver. “For the (Republican) hardliners, there’s a lot of political benefit to be gained from confronting the president.”

The tug-of-war has brought backroom negotiations to an apparent standstill, save for one meeting between congressional leaders and President Barack Obama at the White House this week.

Instead, political leaders have embraced the incentive to take to the cameras instead of the negotiating room, where they can excoriate the other side directly to the people.

“This isn’t some damn game,” House Speaker John Boehner said at a GOP news conference Friday, in which he complained that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid had made it clear Democrats “were not going to talk until we surrender.”

“The American people don’t want their government shut down, and neither do I,” Boehner said.

A few hours later, it was Reid’s turn to grace the airwaves. Armed with a sign calling on Boehner to “Stop the Republican Shutdown,” Reid sniffed at the suggestion he should offer Boehner a face-saving way out.

“This isn’t a date to the prom, this is our country,” Reid said.

Reid added that he didn’t foresee there being any increased public pressure on Democrats to be the ones to make a deal.

“You search the papers with me today,” Reid said. “You search the news accounts and find anything that suggests that Democrats have anything to do with the shutdown.”

”The momentum continues to be on our side,” Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., added.

Political leaders aren’t just speaking from the heart — they’re also watching numbers that are encouraging them to stick to their guns.

Recent polls show that by and large, the country is blaming Republicans for the shutdown.

“That swing, if the Democrats can hang onto it, is the difference for the 2014 elections, maybe even giving them the majority in the House,” said Fred Lokken, political science professor at Truckee Meadows Community College. “Mainstream Republicans are looking at that, and thinking, ‘this is doing damage to the party.’”

But mainstream Republicans are not the drivers of the Republican negotiating position.

"The fundamental thing to understand about the politics of a shutdown is ... the hardliners driving the shutdown come from very safe congressional districts,” Hanson said. “If you are perceived as being insufficiently aggressive in confronting President Obama, then you’re in danger of a primary challenge.”

That scenario means the political stakes of 2014 are playing as much of a role in this as the immediate stakes of a continued federal freeze — and a quick look at the party campaign committees makes it clear just how much.

In the time since the shutdown started, Democrats have experienced some of their biggest fundraising hauls of the year, and begun to launch ads—– including one by House Majority PAC, a political action committee to support a Democratic majority in the House, against Nevada Republican Rep. Joe Heck.

“Tell Joe Heck to stop playing dangerous Republican games and start siding with us,” said the voiceover in the commercial that features a Monopoly-like game board where the spaces feature various vignettes about the government shutdown.

Republicans have also been raking in campaign cash off the back of the shutdown.

“But (Republicans) are hitting back differently,” Duffy said. “It’s gestures, like they’ll go to the World War II memorial and promise to keep it open.”

The pattern is playing out in the way lawmakers have tried to present the shutdown to their constituents, as well.

Democrats are playing up the doomsday aspects of the federal government shutdown, warning that the United States’ reputation, economy and legitimacy are on the line if Congress does anything but fix everything at once.

That translates into shared pain.

“The Democrats want to make this seem like the end of Western civilization, because they’re trying to create the image that this government shutdown and the hardships are directly the result of the Republicans’ refusal to fund the government,” said Terry Madonna, pollster and political scientist at Franklin & Marshall college.

“If they’re not doing things and helping people, or doing casework, then it becomes a lot more real, to more people,” Duffy said.

Reid is one of several Senate Democrats who have shuttered their congressional offices and even stopped responding to constituent emails during the shutdown, despite the fact that many of their Republican counterparts and members of both parties in the House are scrambling to keep their doors open, even on reduced staff.

“We’re following the law,” Reid told the Sun. “I could of course have people there, but it seems unfair to me that someone at Congress would be treated differently than someone who works at the Bureau of Land Management or the FBI.”

Meanwhile, Republicans are trying to shift focus away from the nationwide problem, and offer a personal touch — whether it’s proposing narrow, single-issue measures to re-fund the Veterans Affairs Department, the national parks or the National Institutes of Health; sending members down to the National Mall to press against barricaded monuments; or interacting directly with their constituents wherever possible.

During a shift working the phones in his office, Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., told the Sun that he wasn’t allowed to fly home, or to send mail to his constituents for the duration of the shutdown — and that he resented what he saw as Democratic efforts to “make this as painful as possible” for constituents.

“This is a politically driven shutdown,” Heller said. “This is not about the American people, this is about what’s best for the Democratic Party.”

How much mileage Democrats or Republicans are able to get out of the calamitous crisis, however, depends on how long the situation lasts — and how much worse it gets.

“The answer lies in how long the shutdown lasts: The government shut down for 21 days in '96, and the economy didn’t suffer; the GDP growth in the second quarter of '96 was over 7 percent,” Terry Madonna said. “Admittedly though, the economy was much better ... we’ve got a more fragile economy now.”

“I think the debt ceiling is the tipping point,” Duffy said. “Then, you’re going beyond an argument over funding health care. This is a much, much bigger deal about whether the parties will let the government default.”

The bracing of either party seems poised to push the country dangerously close to the brink of that default: Boehner is assuring his Republican rank-and-file that he will hold the line on negotiating changes to Obamacare in exchange for passing a budget, and the best offer yet from House Democrats to circumvent that process, a discharge petition, can’t be put on the House floor until three days before the debt ceiling deadline of Oct. 17.

“If we get close to that deadline, we’re really playing with fire,” Schumer warned Friday, adding that there wasn’t enough time before then to talk about striking a broader bargain that might make all negotiators feel that they could claim a partial victory.

So the options remain: Negotiation, or not. And if not, it’s not clear who wins.

“There is no political upside to a shutdown,” Hanson said. “Its general effect will be to make the public disgusted with Washington, and to frustrate people.”

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