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Gingrich returning to Capitol Hill

THE NATION

The visit from the face of the last government shutdown troubles some GOP leaders

March 31, 2011|Kathleen Hennessey

WASHINGTON — If it's been hard to ignore the echoes of recent Washington history lately -- as a Democratic White House battles House Republicans over the budget and talk of a government shutdown swirls -- the arrival of a blast from the past on Thursday will make it impossible.

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, the man most closely associated with and often blamed for the last government shutdown, is returning to Capitol Hill for a series of meetings with House lawmakers.

Notably, Gingrich will start off his day in a closed-door meeting with the GOP House freshmen, a group he often likens to the band of "conservative revolutionaries" he led through the budget fight of the mid- 1990s.

The timing of the visit may be coincidental, as Republicans claim, but it is undeniably loaded with symbolism -- not all of it welcome by some in the GOP leadership.

Gingrich has said he plans to talk to the freshmen about the lesson of 1995-96, when he presided over a government shutdown, and encourage them to "be bold" and appeal to the American people for support.

But those Republican leaders who've spent weeks trying to tamp down shutdown talk and to preemptively blame Democrats view Gingrich's visit as tone-deaf and poorly timed.

"We're not trying to shut down the government; we're trying to cut spending," one GOP aide said. House leaders are not scheduled to meet with Gingrich, aides said.

Trying to avert a new shutdown, Republican and Democratic aides continued negotiating Wednesday, and Vice President Joe Biden visited to nudge the talks along.

Biden said the two sides agreed on $23 billion in additional cuts, but details on what to cut had yet to be worked out.

But the former speaker has his own mission. As he openly explores a run for president, Gingrich is trying to forge connections with the new, young, "tea party"-aligned Republican lawmakers.

That means rehabilitating his image and changing the conventional wisdom in Washington about the 1995-96 budget fight, even if his message is somewhat at odds with the one the party is trying to communicate.

His maneuvers are a good example of how the competition for the GOP presidential nomination already has begun to complicate life for the party's congressional wing.

The usual account of the shutdown in the mid-'90s was that it was a blunder by Republicans that allowed President Clinton to recover his political standing and opened the way for his reelection in 1996.

Gingrich's version, which he laid out in a Washington Post opinion piece last month, is that Clinton was to blame for the two brief shutdowns in the winter of '95-96. He also argued that the shutdown eventually proved a successful way to force Clinton toward balancing the budget and agreeing to a compromise on welfare reform.

"The lesson for today's House Republicans is simple: Work to keep the government open, unless it requires breaking your word to the American people and giving up your principles," Gingrich wrote.

Gingrich arrives as Washington is counting the days before a deadline to reach a budget deal. Both sides are jockeying to blame the other for a government stoppage -- hoping to avoid the political blowback that made Gingrich one of the most unpopular politicians of the era.

To be sure, the former speaker will be greeted warmly by some Republican lawmakers.

Many of the GOP's most hard-line conservatives are buoyed by a recent reclamation of power in the House and are pushing their leadership to hold strong and resist compromise with Democrats, even if it means threatening a temporary cutoff in federal services.

Gingrich is viewed as a battle-scarred and -tested veteran of that strategy.

"This is a great opportunity for our class to hear from a recognized leader who knows what it's like to stand in our shoes and work through the tough issues," said Rep. Austin Scott (R-Ga.), the freshman class leader who organized the meeting.

Gingrich was never a wildly popular national figure. But after the government shutdown in 1996, nearly two-thirds of Americans viewed him unfavorably.

Convincing today's lawmakers that taking such a hit in the polls is worth it will be a hard sell. Some Republicans regret the shutdown and recoil at attempts to redefine past shutdowns.

"No, it was a bad thing," said Rep. Steven C. LaTourette (R-Ohio), who was in Congress at the time and said the shutdown was not necessary to reach the goals cited in Gingrich's op-ed piece.

House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), meanwhile, said he welcomed Gingrich to Capitol Hill.

"It's wonderful!" he said.

--

kathleen.hennessey@latimes.com

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