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Yes, Republicans Are Threatening a Government Shutdown Fight

Win McNamee/Getty Images

I can’t claim to be 100 percent certain about this, but I’m pretty sure that nobody in modern U.S. history has ever explicitly threatened to shut down the government, or claimed credit for a government shutdown after the fact. House Speaker John Boehner accepted blame for October’s government shutdown. But the people who planned it and forced him into it have not.

This is easy to explain. The politics of conditioning government appropriations on otherwise unobtainable policy goals are highly toxic, so the people who orchestrate government shutdowns never admit to the explicit nature of their threats. Last year, conservatives adamantly denied that they were preparing to shut down the government unless President Barack Obama agreed to spoil his own signature initiative, and they deny that’s what they did to this day. Instead, they insist that President Obama and Harry Reid shut down the government out of their own misplaced devotion to Obamacare, as if it were not already a law on the books.

A year later, it’s the same story. A rump of Congressional Republicans, alarmed over reports that Obama intends to expand a program deferring deportation for low-priority immigrants, are thinking about using the appropriations process to make Obama relinquish his existing authority. But that is not how they will describe it.

Despite this devastatingly clever rhetorical trick, the reporters who cover Congress for a living are somehow able to follow the true causal chain. Obama isn’t threatening to veto appropriations bills unless they come with heaping sides of new government programs and executive powers. If he were, we'd say he was threatening a government shutdown. And if the government shut down as a result, he’d get the blame.

Instead, you have influential congressmen like Representative Steve King saying that ending deferred action may become “a requirement" for funding the government. It’s true that he didn’t say “I will shut down the government.” But we know who’s making the demands. They’re issuing those demands through us.

Which is why I think my colleague Danny Vinik is letting literalism get the best of him when he argues there is no government shutdown threat. There very much is. That’s not to say that the threat will build, or morph into a tense stand off, let alone an actual shutdown. But the threat is clear. It’s clear in explicit statements like the ones above. It’s clear in leaks, like this one to The Atlantic’s Molly Ball. And it’s clear in more roundabout statements, like this one, from Senator Marco Rubio, to the conservative website Breitbart.

“There will have to be some sort of a budget vote or a continuing resolution vote, so I assume there will be some sort of a vote on this,” Rubio said. “I’m interested to see what kinds of ideas my colleagues have about using funding mechanisms to address this issue."

His comments are admittedly vague. He's is suggesting either that Republicans will condition funding the government on ending deferred action—the same formula that led to the shutdown over Obamacare—or that they will use the appropriations process to force Democrats to vote on ending deferred action, without actually making the end of deferred action a requirement for funding the government. (House Republicans tried something similar just a few weeks ago. It was stunningly ineffective.)

But the truth is practically irrelevant to the question of whether this presages a government shutdown fight. Just as it doesn’t really matter whether Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell actually has a government shutdown in mind when he promises to strong-arm Obama next year, or whether he intends to cave.

In either case he’s threatening to use the appropriations process as leverage to extract concessions. That's a government shutdown fight. And no matter how he plays it, he will unleash forces he and other GOP leaders have proven incapable of restraining. They can’t control the plot.

That’s why Politico’s headline blared “McConnell’s plan to shut down Obama,” and HuffPost warned “Marco Rubio Hints At A Government Shut Down Fight.” Nobody’s saying a government shutdown will definitely happen. But a confrontation is very likely, and Republicans in Congress are the reason. Even if they never say the words “government shutdown.”