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What Lessons Can We Learn From The 2013 Government Shutdown?

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And we begin this hour talking numbers.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Let's start with 420,000. That would be the rough estimate of the number of federal employees currently working without pay because the government has deemed them essential.

CORNISH: Three hundred eighty thousand - about that many federal workers are furloughed, which means they're not working, and they're not getting paid.

KELLY: Two - that's the number of times the president has met with party leaders in the White House Situation Room in the last 72 hours.

CORNISH: Sixteen - that's the number of days the 2013 government shutdown lasted. Democrats and Republicans were fighting over the Affordable Care Act and raising the debt ceiling.

KELLY: Twenty-four billion - dollars, that is - that's a Standard & Poor's analysis of how much that 16-day shutdown cost the government.

CORNISH: If the current government shutdown lasts until Monday, it will be the second longest in history.

KELLY: We are going to turn to someone now who played a key role in that 2013 government shutdown. Michael Steel was press secretary for then-Speaker of the House John Boehner. So he had a front-row seat for that standoff. Michael Steel, welcome to the program.

MICHAEL STEEL: Good to be with you.

KELLY: Before we get to 2013 and what happened then, your thoughts on how this one is playing out? Trump is now saying it could last months or even years. What's your reaction?

STEEL: President Trump is a president unlike any other, and this is a shutdown unlike any other. Most government shutdowns result from Congress, which under our Constitution has the power of the purse, trying to force the president to do something. This is exactly the opposite. This is the president shutting down the government essentially trying to force Congress to do something. It's kind of a "Blazing Saddles" approach, taking himself hostage.

KELLY: You said a shutdown unlike any other, but are there lessons we could learn? How did you all find a way out of it in the end in 2013?

STEEL: Well, the 2013 shutdown was ultimately a mismatch between priorities and tactics. People believed that - people opposed the Affordable Care Act at that time. It was not popular by any stretch of the imagination. At the same time, shutting down the government in an attempt to defund it was also not very popular.

And what we ultimately did was weather the political attacks from Senate Democrats, from President Obama until Republicans in moderate seats in the House were willing to join with Democrats to reopen the government and provide funding for the Affordable Care Act.

This is a very different situation in the sense that it's hard to see any coalition coming together in either house, really, that would be able to pass a bill that included funding the government and this additional $5 billion that the president is demanding for his wall along the border.

KELLY: One other thing that seems really different is the lack of urgency that we seem to be seeing now versus in 2013, where, I mean, now we are two weeks in and there really hadn't been any real talks until the last few days.

STEEL: No. It's really strikingly different in two ways from that point of view. The first is that the usual rule of a government shutdown is the way you win a government shutdown fight is by making the public - convincing the public that you don't want to shut down the government. You have to show people that you have gone to every extent possible to avoid shutting down the government, and President Trump went exactly the opposite direction on that. He says that he is responsible for the shutdown. He wears it proudly. He's just - he's accepting responsibility or blame in a way that hasn't been typical.

And the second way is, yeah, as you said, part of it is due to the fact that only a portion of the federal government is shut down. It's not a complete federal government shutdown, so critical areas including the Department of Defense are fully funded. But it is really striking the degree to which there's not a sense of urgency, there's not a sense of emergency. There's not that same sense of crisis that we've seen in past shutdowns.

KELLY: You have a lot of experience working with Republicans on the Hill, so I want to ask you about one of the most, perhaps the most prominent Republican on the Hill this time around, Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader, who now is dealing with two Republican senators who have broken ranks and are urging a compromise. Is Senator McConnell arguably now under more pressure than anybody to end this?

STEEL: No. Senator McConnell is actually kind of in the catbird seat. He has, the way he usually does, drawn a scenario where he doesn't think that the Senate should lead on this. There will be no more test votes, no more show votes. Nothing will happen until we have a proposal negotiated between House Democrats, agreed to by Senate Democrats - who have to provide at least ten votes in the Senate in order to get anything done or almost 10 votes in order to get anything done - and President Trump himself.

And, well, that position allows senators up for - Republican senators up for re-election and potentially swing states like Colorado and Maine to favor opening the government, it allows most Senate Republicans who, look, want better border security. They think that an additional $5 billion is probably a pretty reasonable sum. They understand that a physical barrier in some portions of the border makes a lot of sense. But they understand that politically shutting down the government to accomplish that goal is not popular and also unlikely to succeed.

KELLY: That's Michael Steel. He was press secretary for Speaker of the House John Boehner. He's now with Hamilton Place Strategies. Michael Steel, thank you.

STEEL: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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