A government shutdown with a big federal election on the horizon, and Montana lawmakers are squarely in the sights of the political blame game. Sound familiar? It should.
Sen. Jon Tester voted with fellow Democrats on Friday against a bill to keep the government running. Most federal government services will run out of money at midnight.
Opponents promised not to let voters forget when Tester faces re-election in November.
But five years ago, it was Republican U.S. Sen. Steve Daines in the hot seat. A freshman member of the U.S. House at the time, Daines sided with Republican lawmakers demanding a repeal of Obamacare in exchange for their votes to keep the government running.
The protest failed, and eventually Daines joined Democrats and 85 Republicans to get the government running again. Democrats labeled Daines “Shutdown Steve” for first withholding his vote. Tea Party Republicans then criticized Daines for ending the shutdown.
None of it stuck. Nineteen days after the 2013 shutdown ended, Daines launched his U.S. Senate campaign. The next year, Daines was elected in the Senate.
Government shutdowns are not what they used to be politically, said Jeremy Johnson, political science professor at Carroll College.
“The shock value from government shutdowns has lessened over time, and they’ve become more frequent,” Johnson said. “In the 1990s, Republicans took more of a beating for shutting the government down.”
Republicans shut down the government in 1995 for six days in November and again that December for an entire month. The next year, President Bill Clinton won re-election and the momentum Republicans had heading into 1995 seemed lost.
The 2014 elections didn’t punish the GOP for the shutdown from the previous year. If there’s a lesson to be learned from that shutdown, it’s that this one isn’t likely to stick to anyone either.
Analyses of the 2013 shutdown suggest that Americans blamed Republicans in the weeks after the shutdown, but moved on before the next election, Johnson said.
Polling done in Montana by the late Craig Wilson of Montana State University Billings in 2013 suggested voters were almost as likely to disapprove of Democrats Tester and then-Sen. Max Baucus as they were Daines.
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The respondents gave Baucus and Tester both about a 44 percent approval rating, while Daines received a 39 percent approval rating. The margin of error was 5 percent.
Tester said in a press call Thursday that some Montanans might be receptive to Republican attempts to blame him for shutting down the government.
“It probably will come,” Tester said. "In the end, I've got to do what’s right, and what’s right is to make sure we have a long-term funding deal that works for families and businesses.”
Tester said he would agree to a bill that kept the government running for a few more days if it bought time to craft a bill that funded the federal government through September, which is the end of the federal fiscal year. That goal, coupled with long-term funding for the Children's Health Insurance Program, would get Tester’s vote, he said. Another short-term funding bill — there have been four already — followed by another won't get his vote.
The senator has stayed clear of the debate on Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, which would allow illegal immigrants brought to the United States as children to remain in country and become eligible for citizenship.
Johnson pointed out that Tester voted against a bill — the Dream Act — similar to DACA in 2010, which makes it difficult for Republicans to pin DACA to Tester now, even as other Democrats have clearly stated they want DACA settled and are willing to barter a shutdown for it.
The current situation is a reversal of roles for Tester and Daines. Tester was able to speak against a shutdown in 2013. He’s now saying he doesn’t want one, but can’t support the bill put forth by the Republican majority in the Senate. That current bill will need at least a dozen votes from Democrats to reach the support of the 60 senators needed for passage. The GOP has circulated plans to target Democrats like Tester, from states President Donald Trump won in 2016.
Daines isn’t under pressure to vote against his party’s bill to keep the government running for one month. That bill includes a six-year extension of funding for the CHIP, which provides health care to poor children. Daines is suggesting Democrats are failing those children by not supporting the Republican bill.
“Here’s the choice we have before us today,” Daines in a Friday floor speech, “A choice we have less than seven hours to make: we can either keep the government open and fund health insurance for 24,000 Montana kids or shut down the government.”