The roles Midlanders played in the government shutdown and what's next -
Published Sunday, October 20, 2013 at 12:01 am / Updated at 11:59 pm
The roles Midlanders played in the government shutdown and what's next

WASHINGTON — A deeply acrimonious standoff over the federal budget ended last week when Republicans and Democrats came together — and agreed to fight it all out again in three months.

Government workers are back on the job, and the nation's debt ceiling has been raised. But only for now. Last week's agreement sets up new deadlines in January and early February.

As the parties confront their differing visions for the country's future, the same cast of characters is running things.

It remains to be seen how hard Republicans will continue pushing to derail Obamacare. Democrats have successfully resisted attempts to radically change the Affordable Care Act.

Expect Democrats to work for elimination of the automatic spending cuts known as sequestration, while Republicans will try to focus on ways to further cut spending.

A breakdown of which Midlanders dug in their heels and which were willing to compromise to end the partial government shutdown:

Sen. Mike Johanns, R-Neb.


Where he started: Despite opposing the health care law, Johanns declined to join the push to tie defunding it to keeping the government open. He said the approach seemed more like a bid for attention than an effective strategy.

Along the way: As the showdown continued, Johanns emerged as a consistent critic of the health care gambit — telling reporters that it was nothing more than a fool's errand that was misleading the public. A bipartisan group led by Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, began working on a framework to end the standoff, and she asked Johanns to help, citing in part his background as a former governor. Their work helped pave the way for the package that passed last week.

Where he ended up: Johanns voted for the bill to reopen government and raise the debt ceiling, saying it was needed to get out from under the shadow of the immediate budget crisis.

Where he goes from here: Collins' working group could be tapped again to help bridge partisan divides. Johanns says the next few months will feature intense work in an effort to come up with broader budget changes. Republicans, he said, need to insist that existing budget caps be maintained.

Sen. Deb Fischer, R-Neb.


Where she started: Fischer signed a letter over the summer that said she would not support any spending measures to keep the government open unless they also eliminated money for the health care law. She said the strategy made sense, given the level of public dissatisfaction with the health care law. But she suggested that the government was unlikely to actually shut down.

Along the way: She initially stood with Sens. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and Mike Lee, R-Utah, in holding the line in the fight against the health care law, despite the possibility of a shutdown. As the impasse lengthened, she talked to Collins about her ideas but ultimately did not join the bipartisan group because she couldn't support aspects of their plan and, she said, they seemed to have enough senators involved.

Where she ended up: Fischer ultimately broke with Cruz and company and voted for the bill to reopen the government and raise the debt ceiling, even though she described the package as “not that great.” She said it would give everyone time to step back from the intensity of the past few weeks and, she hopes, find a way to work together in the future.

Where she goes from here: Fischer predicts that the coming negotiations will highlight the large rift between the two parties as Democrats push to remove the automatic cuts known as sequestration and try to increase federal spending, while Republicans push back in the opposite direction.

Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa


Where he started: Grassley was among the Senate Republicans who signed the letter laying out the defund-or-shutdown approach spearheaded by Cruz.

Along the way: Grassley said the tactic of tying the health care fight to funding the government looked realistic in the beginning, but less so as time went on. During the partial shutdown, he talked to a colleague who was leading the effort — he declined to say which one — and told him that big changes take time to accomplish in Washington. And Grassley, who served on Capitol Hill during the shutdown battles of the 1990s, warned that a Republican defeat could be costly. “I've seen us go down in flames,” Grassley told his junior colleague. “It took five or six years to come back.”

Where he ended up: Grassley voted against the bill to reopen the government and raise the debt ceiling, saying it didn't do enough to address deficit spending and the growing national debt. And he defended the effort to defund the health care law. “If you're going to be intellectually honest and you think it's a bad piece of legislation, you got to fight it wherever you can fight it. So we fought it here and didn't make any progress. There will be another opportunity.”

Where he goes from here: Part of the agreement to reopen the government included a commitment to fresh budget negotiations. Grassley will be one of the negotiators for Senate Republicans. He has talked about the need to focus on entitlement programs such as Medicare as a way to address budget issues in the long term rather than a few months at a time.

Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa


Where he started: As one of the most liberal members of the Senate, Harkin urged fellow Democrats to give up little or nothing in negotiations with Republicans. He regularly criticized GOP tactics as harmful to the country.

Along the way: Harkin consistently argued that Democrats should not be making concessions to Republicans in the budget negotiations. He considers the debt ceiling unconstitutional and has said the president should simply ignore it. He also said GOP lawmakers were acting as if providing for the routine operations of government was a favor to Democrats, when it really is for the good of the country.

Where he ended up: Harkin voted for the legislation to reopen the government and raise the debt ceiling.

Where he goes from here: Harkin will continue to offer a strong voice from the left. As a senior member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, he will have a role in spending matters, including an expected Democratic effort to eliminate the automatic budget cuts known as sequestration. Another round of those cuts is due to hit in January.

Rep. Lee Terry, R-Neb.


Where he started: Despite warnings from Democrats that they would not negotiate on the new health care law, Terry threw in his lot with other House Republicans. He voted to fund the government only if Congress defunded the health care law. Terry said a government shutdown seemed likely, although he also predicted that it would probably last no more than a day or two and would have minimal impact. At one point, he raised the possibility of tying a debt ceiling increase to approval of the Keystone XL pipeline, but that proposal was later abandoned.

Along the way: Terry came up with the idea, embraced by GOP House leaders, of passing individual spending bills and branding the effort as a way to “Reboot America.” Although Senate Democrats largely blew off the piecemeal measures, Terry said he felt they had helped keep up the pressure from Republicans. In the midst of the shutdown, Terry was asked whether he would continue collecting his salary and he replied, “Dang straight,” citing his mortgage and his son in college. After an onslaught of criticism, he apologized for the comments and agreed to suspend his pay during the shutdown.

Where he ended up: Terry voted for the bipartisan agreement to reopen the government and raise the debt ceiling.

Where he goes from here: The Omaha congressman said the piecemeal bills passed by the House could provide something of a road map for the upcoming budget negotiations. Those negotiations represent a fresh opportunity, he said, for Republicans to continue fighting against the health care law.

Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, R-Neb.


Where he started: Fortenberry voted with other House Republicans to require defunding the health care law in order to keep the government open.

Along the way: Although he bemoaned the negative repercussions of a government shutdown, the Lincoln congressman talked about the need to use key leverage points to address the nation's problems. He said those included the skyrocketing debt and adverse effects of the health care law.

Where he ended up: Fortenberry voted for the bipartisan agreement, saying the “paralysis” of recent weeks had damaged the institution of Congress and the presidency, frustrated the country and weakened the economy. After the final deal was announced, Fortenberry recalled talking to a Capitol Police officer who told him: “I don't care if you're a Republican or a Democrat, I need my paycheck.” Fortenberry said the officer was right. “We need to get the government back to work,” Fortenberry said.

Where he goes from here: Fortenberry suggested one major budget deal could go a long way to restore America's economy — something he thinks lawmakers should keep in mind in the coming weeks.

Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa


Where he started: King has been a loud conservative voice advocating that the health care law be torn out by its roots and was a strong supporter of the defunding strategy. He talked early on about how the effort was unifying the Republican caucus.

Along the way: King urged his fellow Republicans to hold the line. As the shutdown continued and House Republican leaders ratcheted down their demands, King voted against their plan. He said the Republican proposals didn't go far enough — even as Democrats rejected them as overreaching. King also questioned the necessity of raising the debt ceiling last week, saying the government takes in enough money to at least service the nation's debt.

Where he ended up: King voted against the measure to reopen the government and raise the debt ceiling.

Where he goes from here: King will no doubt continue to advocate doing everything possible to eliminate the health care law. Still, it remains to be seen whether the past few weeks have done lasting damage to the influence of King and other hard-line conservatives among House Republicans. Moderate Republicans in swing districts around the country are feeling burned after the past few weeks.

Reps. Adrian Smith, R-Neb., and Tom Latham, R-Iowa

Where they started: They supported House GOP leaders in defunding the health care law.

Along the way: Both stuck with their leadership throughout the shutdown.

Where they ended up: Both voted to reopen the government and raise the debt ceiling.

Contact the writer: Joseph Morton    |  

Joe is The World-Herald's Washington, D.C., bureau, covering national political developments that matter most to Midlanders.

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