Muckraker: Grist on Politics

One might recall that Newt Gingrich resigned his seat in Congress in 1998. But he was back on the Hill yesterday to join the House GOP sit-in, and now he’s threatening that the Republicans will shut down government if they don’t get a separate vote on offshore drilling. Perhaps he hasn’t gotten the message yet that he is no longer an elected official.

“Are [Democrats] really prepared to close the government in order to stop drilling?” Gingrich asked. “Because I think the country will find that to be a suicidal strategy.”

Gingrich, who has in the past described himself as a “green conservative” and served as a We campaign spokesperson, is also the leader of the 527 group “American Solutions for Winning the Future” trumpeting the “Drill here, drill now, pay less” mantra.

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Republicans would be able to essentially “shut down the government” by refusing to pass key spending bills that will expire when the fiscal year ends on September 30. There are a number of key appropriation bills that need to be passed when Congress is back in session next month — including the appropriation for the Department of the Interior, which includes the moratorium on offshore drilling. If they don’t pass the bill, it will expire at the end of September along with the ban on drilling. If Republicans don’t get their offshore drilling vote by fiat, they’re hoping to get it by default.

Gingrich knows a thing or two about government shutdowns, having orchestrated one as Speaker of the House in 1995 and 1996. But his attempts largely backfired, and widespread dissatisfaction with his leadership eventually prompted his resignation from the post.

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The government shutdown was wildly unpopular with the public, and the then-Speaker registered disapproval ratings as high as 65 percent. The majority of Americans at the time saw him and his tactics as divisive. Even his partymates in the House were unhappy, threatening to vote against reinstating him as Speaker in the 107th Congress and penalizing him severely for ethics violations.

But Gingrich, and the current House leaders, believe they could have a political winner if they shut down the government over the offshore drilling issue next month. They’ve also pledged to continue their sit-in for at least the next two weeks.

“If Democrats want to block what a majority of the House and Senate want, they can proceed with a strategy that would in effect shut down the government,” Kevin Smith, a spokesperson for Minority Leader John Boehner, told CNN yesterday.

Current House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s spokesperson Nadeam Elshami issued a response: “Democrats will not shut down the government, but it is not surprising Newt Gingrich would raise that threat since he and the Republican Party shut down the government in the 1990s.” (Anybody remember just a few months ago when Pelosi and Gingrich were sitting on a couch together talking about how “we” can solve climate change?)

Meanwhile, Minority Leader Boehner isn’t even on the Hill for the party protest he called for. He’s home in Ohio, golfing and raising money for his political action committee, the Freedom Project. His spokesfolk say he might be back on the Hill at the end of the week, but in the meantime, he issued this statement:

Congress doesn’t deserve a break — not while families and small businesses are struggling under the weight of sky-high fuel costs. It’s time for Barack Obama to put away the tire gauge and tell his Democratic leaders to return to Washington — today — to hold a vote on the American Energy Act.