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Business News/ Politics / Do Voters Want Compromise or Combat? Shutdown Battle Reflects Deep Divide
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Do Voters Want Compromise or Combat? Shutdown Battle Reflects Deep Divide


Lawmakers weighing whether to cut bipartisan deals are pulled in conflicting directions by their constituents.

The weeks ahead will offer many tests of the appetite in Congress for bipartisan deals. Premium
The weeks ahead will offer many tests of the appetite in Congress for bipartisan deals.

The last-minute turnabout in Congress that staved off a government shutdown reflects one of the most significant conundrums in American politics: Voters can’t decide if they want their leaders to compromise or to fight.

Most Americans say they are fatigued by political combat and see the inability of Democrats and Republicans to work together as one of the nation’s most severe problems, a variety of polls show. Congress seemed to score a victory for those considerations Saturday with a bipartisan spending deal—and a deal between the House and Senate—even though it only fixes the problems for a matter of weeks.

But with animosity and distrust between the two parties at record highs, large shares within each party also want their lawmakers to fight for their core values, even if that makes it harder to address critical problems—a view driven in part by partisan news outlets and social media. While the proponents of that approach in Congress suffered a setback, it may be that they lost one battle but still can win the war for how Congress does or doesn’t govern.

These cross pressures help explain why bipartisanship emerged only as a last resort last weekend to extend funding for the government, after a set of conservative dissidents had essentially commandeered the House by blocking efforts by their own party leaders to pass earlier funding bills.

The Republican rebels were foiled by nearly every Democrat in the House joining more than 100 Republicans in support of GOP Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s (Calif.) spending plan. For one weekend, at least, the forces of compromise and smooth governance prevailed.

The dissident conservatives, such as Rep. Matt Gaetz (R., Fla.), who are creating havoc for their own party leaders are talking to a different set of voters than are most of their colleagues. The GOP defectors are aiming at those who say fighting for core policies and values—in this case, tighter budget restraints and more border security—is more important than a deal that brings only partial victories. Shutting down a government they profess to disdain wasn’t a deterrent.

By casting themselves as the most combative fighters, these lawmakers draw media attention and campaign donations, said Doug Heye, who was a senior Republican congressional aide during a prior GOP-led shutdown in 2013. “They’re playing different games," he said. “Matt Gaetz’s audience and priorities are different from that of any rank-and-file member of the GOP."

Gaetz, who is widely expected to run for Florida governor rather than build a career in Congress, is “going for attention, TV interviews, fundraising," said Heye. By contrast, he said. “I’ve never had anybody call me because they’re doing a story on Gus Bilirakis—members who just put their head down and work." Bilirakis is a GOP lawmaker from the same state with solid conservative credentials.

In a sense, the dissidents can win by losing—as long as voters see them putting up a fight. “They are not looking for rewards from leadership," said Sarah Binder, a senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution. “You’re not looking to get your bill on the floor or for the speaker to come campaign in your district. The rewards come from outside Washington"—from conservative media and social media, which in turn drive like-minded voters to send campaign donations.

The combative stance also aligns the GOP dissidents with their party’s most influential figure, Donald Trump. The former president, who has a massive lead for the 2024 nomination, called for an “all or nothing" stance in the funding fight. “Unless you get everything, shut it down!" Trump wrote on social media, using all capital letters.

And few of Trump’s opponents for the Republican nomination are touting their ability to reach across the aisle. Instead they are vowing to fight, and some candidates are promising to impose their policies unilaterally, even over congressional opposition.

A different set of incentives was more important to less-combative and centrist Republicans in the funding fight, as widespread public frustration with political leaders heightened the odds that McCarthy and his GOP colleagues would pay a penalty for a shutdown, said Peter Wehner, who served in the Reagan and both Bush administrations.

“There’s no question that the public is really, really discouraged by politics, and unhappy and angry, too. And that plays into what we saw happen here, because it was clear that Republicans would be held responsible for the shutdown," he said.

“The public anger and weariness with the nature of our politics drove this," he said of the votes to extend government funding. “I think that was the piston in the engine that drove this deal.’’

A similar dynamic was on display in the Senate on a separate issue.

For months, Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R., Ala.) has frustrated military officials and lawmakers within his own party by blocking hundreds of military promotions, saying he won’t yield until the Pentagon reverses a policy of paying travel costs for out-of-state abortions for service members. When the Senate last month finally held votes on several senior nominations, including of Gen. CQ Brown Jr., to be chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the vote for confirmation was overwhelming and bipartisan.

“Again, he’s defining success differently" than are other senators, said Heye, referring to Tuberville. “It’s: ‘I’m the ultimate fighter. Who else is more pro-life than me?’ And whether that’s to the consternation of his colleagues is beside the point."

The weeks ahead will offer many tests of the appetite in Congress for bipartisan deals. Gaetz has said he would file a motion to remove McCarthy as House speaker, and McCarthy may have to rely on Democratic votes to survive, given that his party’s narrow, 221-212 margin means he can lose no more than four of his GOP colleagues to pass bills without Democratic support.

Democrats in the most competitive districts might support McCarthy in such a vote, but some of the most noted liberals in the House, including Progressive Caucus Chair Pramila Jayapal (D., Wash.) and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D., N.Y.) say they won’t help offset the votes that McCarthy loses among his own party.

And with the House led by Republicans and the Senate by Democrats, lawmakers will have to work their way through political thickets to address issues such as beefing up border security, as many Republicans want, and sending more aid to Ukraine, which President Biden wants but a growing share of Republicans oppose. At the same time, they need to pass a budget to fund the government from mid-November though the rest of the fiscal year.

Many polls show that voters, as a group, want lawmakers to work together, at least in the abstract. More than 60% of people in both parties said in a Pew Research Center poll this June that the ability of Democrats and Republicans to work together was one of the nation’s most serious problems, ranking it third, closely behind inflation and healthcare costs.

But polls also consistently show that partisan voters want their political leaders to fight for core values, even if that makes it harder to address critical problems. Some 64% of Republicans and 41% of Democrats took that position in a Pew survey this year.

On Capitol Hill, some lawmakers said they hoped the weekend funding votes presaged a period of more cooperation between the parties. “I hope we do this more often…. The American people sent a message that they want us to work together," said Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania, one of the 18 Republicans whose district backed Biden for president in 2020.

Rep. Jim McGovern (D., Mass.), by contrast, cautioned against predicting that Republican leadership would regularly seek out deals with Democrats to sideline their party’s rebels. “Don’t read too much into this," he said.

Lindsay Wise contributed to this article.

Write to Aaron Zitner at

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