WASHINGTON — Tuesday morning's headlines underscored for Sen. Mike Johanns, R-Neb., the futility of shutting down the government in a bid to stop the new health care law.
The news was dominated by two stories: the federal government shutdown and the opening of insurance marketplaces under the new law.
Johanns has been an outspoken critic of the Affordable Care Act but has never bought into the strategy — demanded by hard-line conservatives and backed by many of his GOP colleagues — of trying to pull the plug on the law by threatening a shutdown.
He said his office got thousands of calls from people all over the country insisting that he oppose funding the law, even if it meant a shutdown.
“And people were passionate,” he said. “They were screaming at us.”
But now the government is closed and the health care law continues to move full steam ahead because its funding does not depend on the annual appropriations of the budget bill.
“Defunding was never a possibility,” Johanns said. “That was the crazy thing about this ... it just wasn't a workable strategy.”
Johanns is not running for re-election next year and noted that he will leave office having never served in the Senate majority. Along the way he's learned that those who hold the reins of power control the agenda.
“If the majority sticks together, then I'm on the losing end of every vote,” Johanns said. “It just is what it is.”
He said he's not sure where Congress goes from here or how long this shutdown will last.
Rep. Lee Terry, R-Neb., said he was abandoning his previous prediction that the shutdown would last just 24 to 48 hours.
“It's just a big question mark,” Terry said.
He said there is continuing anger among House Republicans that Democrats won't come to the table to negotiate and that President Barack Obama hasn't been helping things with his comments.
“The president just poured a lot of gasoline on it this afternoon, too,” Terry said.
Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, said it's up to House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, to end the impasse by bringing a “clean bill” up for a vote.
“Boehner calls the shots,” Harkin said. “If he brings up the Senate bill, he knows it'll pass.”
The shutdown strategy gained momentum over the summer when a dozen Senate Republicans wrote a letter saying they would not back any legislation to keep the government open unless it also shut down the health care law. Sens. Deb Fischer of Nebraska and Chuck Grassley of Iowa signed the letter.
Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, downplayed the impact of the shutdown. Now that it has happened, he said, negotiations might move forward.
“We're past the witching hour, the roof hasn't caved in, the sky hasn't fallen,” he said.
King credited government shutdowns in the mid-1990's with improving the government's budget situation and said Republicans need to hold the line. “In the end, public opinion will determine which direction this goes ... pressure builds every day.”
Still, it remains to be seen whom the public will blame for the shutdown.
“It's bad for everybody,” Johanns said. “I just don't think anybody can say that this is a successful strategy, politically or otherwise. I just think it's damaging to the country, it really shakes people's confidence. It scares people.”