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GOP's Revenge Turns Into Disaster

By Bill Schneider/CNN


WASHINGTON (AllPolitics, June 13) -- Ever since the federal government shutdowns more than a year and a half ago, congressional Republicans have seethed with resentment over the way President Bill Clinton humiliated them.

This week, they finally found a way to get revenge. Or so they believed.

A disaster relief bill for the flood-ravaged upper Midwest had to pass, and Clinton had to sign it. Republicans knew that.

So they tacked on an amendment to keep the government open this year, even if Congress and the president can't agree on funding. The catch was, it would keep the government running at spending levels Democrats claimed would require deep cuts.

The president threatened to veto the bill. Republicans dared him to do it, running a slew of radio ads that said, "Bill Clinton says 'no' to disaster relief because the bill would also prevent another government shutdown ... Stand up to Bill Clinton and tell him to stop playing politics with our lives."


The president called their bluff. When the bill reached his desk on Monday, he vetoed it in twenty minutes and sent it back to Congress. "Instead of giving me a disaster relief bill," Clinton said, "the congressional majority insisted on weighing it down with a political wish list."

Sensing the public was with them, Democrats virtually shut the Senate down. Tuesday night, they held an all-night vigil of radio and TV interviews in the office of Minority Leader Tom Daschle, who just happens to represent South Dakota.

"The reason we want to continue to talk tonight," said Daschle, "is to express in as clear and unequivocal a manner as we possibly can that we're going to keep the pressure on tonight, tomorrow, for as long as it takes to get this job done."

lott daschle

It worked. Newspaper editorials the next day were devastating for the GOP. "It's the Republicans who are likely to need disaster relief," read one. "Congressional Republicans ... are playing politics with a tragedy," said another. And still another: "Political blackmail at its worst."

Voters were angry, and polling showed that most of them were paying attention to the issue. Americans take disasters seriously. And they believe disaster relief is what government is for.

A CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll found only 25 percent blaming Clinton for the bill's veto, and a full 55 percent laying the rap on congressional Republicans instead.

Most Americans did not blame the president for vetoing the bill. They blamed the Republicans for attaching unrelated amendments to the bill.

Republicans were thrown on the defensive. "I am ready," said Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott to his Senate colleagues. "I am ready. Help me. I think we can find a way to get this thing done."

flood street

On Wednesday, 20 House Republicans sent a letter to Gingrich demanding that the bill be stripped of controversial amendments. "There is another time, another bill for these provisions," said the missive.

Why did the GOP strategy backfire so badly? First: Republican credentials on the issue of a government shutdown are suspect. They didn't understand that anytime the words "government shutdown" and "Republicans" are used in the same sentence, Republicans lose.

Second, the only thing people saw was that Republicans were letting politics interfere with disaster relief. That is simply intolerable. On Thursday, Republicans surrendered. The Democrats got a clean, fully funded disaster relief bill.

"The American people in general won this debate," said North Dakota Democratic Rep. Tim Johnson.

For the Republicans, bitter humiliation. Once again, they fooled around with the government shutdown issue and it blew up in their face.

For the Democrats, sweet victory. They got to rub the Republicans' noses in it.

And for Tom Daschle, the Democrats' chief strategist, his state gets the aid. And he gets the Political Play of the Week.

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