/ 1 October 2013

US shutdown: Gunslinging and standoffs straight out of fiction

House speaker John Boehner.
House speaker John Boehner. (AP)

The great US government shutdown of 2013 began, said Iowa senator Tom Harkin, "like a scene from the Hollywood western High Noon". There was Democrat sheriff Barack Obama, squared off against a gang of southern gunslingers, both sides determined not to give an inch and prepared to blow each other's brains out to get what they came for.

Unfortunately, much of Washington acted as if it had seen this movie before. The metaphorical tumbleweed blowing down the corridors of Capitol Hill reflected not a fear of being caught in the crossfire, but a cynical war-weariness that left many lawmakers on the sidelines until it was too late. After three years of similar standoffs over the federal budget that were resolved at the last minute, no one could quite believe that this one would finish with shots fired.

Over-rehearsed exchanges
For several days leading up to Monday night's deadline for passing new federal spending authorisation, the familiar clash between Republican and Democrat leaders was characterised not by dramatic tension but over-rehearsed exchanges of rhetoric.

House speaker John Boehner would insist that he had "no interest in shutting down the government", then launch another salvo of impossible demands at the Democrats that risked doing just that. No matter how many times Senate majority leader Harry Reid said he would not negotiate in the face of such threats, Republicans would try again to attach riders to the spending authorisation aimed at repealing the vexed healthcare legislation known as Obamacare.

So convinced were both sides that the other was bluffing, that the White House is said not to have made serious preparations to deal with a possible shutdown until the past 48 hours.

A bizarre all-night speech by senator Ted Cruz last Thursday might have looked like an old-fashioned filibuster designed to force the agenda, but was actually just for show once the Senate timetable had long since been set in train. Wall Street barely noticed what was going on until Monday morning, when the Dow Jones index fell sharply and the penny dropped that Congress might not cut a deal this time.

Messy compromise
With hindsight, the fact that both sides had come to the brink so many times before was part of the problem, not a reason for complacency. The "fiscal cliff" crisis in December 2012 resulted in a messy compromise that weakened Boehner's position within his own party and emboldened hardliners.

Likewise, the anger among Democrats that started when Obama averted a shutdown in 2011 by cutting government spending only fuelled a sense of injustice in his own party. The name-calling that followed – Reid claimed on Monday that House Republicans had "lost their minds" – will make peace and reconciliation that much harder.

Despite the slow build-up, these mounting emotions resulted in a final nine hours that could well have been scripted by Hollywood. The many reporters camped out in the warren of Capitol Hill corridors began to realise that they were in for a long night when the door to a private meeting of House Republicans opened briefly on Monday afternoon to let one of them go to the bathroom. Out slipped a roar of applause, as the majority party loudly cheered plans to make a fresh series of demands over Obamacare that they must have known Democrats would reject.

Rumours of heavy drinking
So bitter had the fight become that Senator David Vitter successfully pushed an amendment targeting lawmakers' own staff members – depriving them of standard employee health insurance subsidies worth thousands of dollars just to prove a political point. Amid stacks of pizza boxes and rumours of heavy drinking, both chambers settled in for a night of votes that were no longer designed to avert a shutdown, but to decide which side would get the blame for causing it.

Shuttling along the third floor corridor that links the two public galleries, it was almost possible to sense the political momentum being passed back and forth between House and Senate as each side tried not to end up holding the bill when midnight struck. House votes took longer to set up, allowing an hour or two of angry denunciations on the floor.

At one point, minority whip Steny Hoyer shouted after a departing Boehner to accuse him of bringing "shame on the House". Then the spending resolution would be pinged back to the upper house where the Democrat grandees such as Chuck Schumer were more withering with their scorn. "I sort of feel sorry for [Boehner]", he said before helping swiftly to kill off two House proposals in quick succession with brutal majority votes lasting less than half an hour each.

And just when a shutdown looked most inevitable, a glimmer of hope would emerge. Republican security hawk Peter King emerged as an unlikely moderate champion in the House when he threatened to vote with Democrats to kill off the Vitter amendment. Allies claimed he had 25 rebels with him that would block both a procedural motion and Boehner's last big legislative push.

In the end, Republican whip Kevin McCarthy prevailed, urging his caucus to stand united. King only persuaded five colleagues to vote with him – and four of them were actually conservatives demanding that the leadership toughen up the language.

False dawn
​A similar false dawn occurred just before midnight when Republicans announced that they would pause hostilities to discuss formal peace talks, or a "conference" in the jargon. Perhaps Boehner would allow a simple vote on the funding resolution after all, mused hopeful onlookers.

But up popped a laconic Republican aide in the press gallery to reassure reporters that this was no climbdown; simply another step in the long-drawn process of apportioning in blame. "I have both breakfast and lunch packed in a bag already," she warned reporters hoping for an early exit. By the time Reid called a halt and announced that the Senate would refuse to "play games" by taking part in these conference talks, the White House already had its statement ready to go informing government officials to prepare for shutdown.

There were lighter moments, most noticeably during Cruz's 23-hour pseudo-filibuster which fell an hour short of the all-time Senate record set by anti-civil rights senator Strom Thrumond in the 1950s. At one point, Cruz helped to fill the time by reading a Dr Seuss book to his young children watching at home.

Rand Paul, who held a shorter filibuster against drone strikes last year, revealed that he had persuaded Cruz to swap his cowboy boots for tennis shoes to cope with the need to stand up for so long. Senate staff members openly speculated as to whether Cruz had opted for a catheter or adult diaper to cope with the other physical consequences of such marathon speaking feats.

But acknowledging the human frailties of Congress may be scant consolation for the millions of Americans now facing the consequences of their headlong rush toward shutdown.

Though essential government services will continue for now, some 800 000 other public employees will be told to stay at home – many without pay – causing untold disruption to everything from national parks to the Nasa's space programme. The long-simmering resentment and bitterness that drove politicians to the brink will make it mighty hard to find a way back. – guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media 2013