By Hedrick Smith
(Reuters) - The political battlefield of the current government shutdown looks a lot like the last big shutdown of 1995. But major changes within the Republican Party in Congress - a weaker leadership, the demise of moderates and two decades of gerrymandering - could make this year's endgame far harder.
Then as now, a rebellious Republican Congress used a budget bill to set up a deliberate confrontation with a Democratic president over spending priorities. GOP militants and radicals in the House - today's wing nuts - bet that gridlock, disarray and the embarrassment of a shutdown would force the White House to give in.
Then, as now, the president defied the Republican brinksmanship and took the political risk of a government shutdown rather than bowing to the GOP's surrender terms. Former President Bill Clinton enjoyed the sport of sparring with Congress and President Barack Obama, after giving in so many times in the past three years, has finally decided to dig in his heels.
What's more, some of the keys to reopening the government and getting things back on track in 1995 are missing today. Most important, the political dynamics within the Republican Party have been transformed.
In 1995, Republicans controlled both the House of Representatives and Senate, so voters held them more responsible for making government work. Today, militant House Republicans calculate that when government looks dysfunctional, Democrats will get blamed, since they hold the White House and control the Senate.
Back then, the Senate Republican majority played a key role in the endgame. The majority leader was Bob Dole, a pragmatic conservative from Kansas, who had his eye on running for president in 1996. He did not want to become the nominee of a party with a reputation for gumming up the works in Washington.
Moreover, Dole not only had right-wing Senate GOP radicals to manage but a significant group of GOP moderates, who disliked the shutdown tactics from the outset - senators like Mark Hatfield and Bob Packwood of Oregon, John Chafee of Rhode Island, Bill Cohen and Olympia Snowe of Maine, Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, Jim Jeffords of Vermont and Nancy Kassebaum of Kansas.
Then as now, House Republicans led the charge. The main instigator was Newt Gingrich, the first Republican House speaker in 40 years.
Gingrich was an authentic leader - in contrast to Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), who has become the Charlie McCarthy of militant Tea Party radicals. Gingrich had created this new Republican majority. He had engineered the GOP takeover of the House in the 1994 elections and personally recruited, trained and helped finance many of the 73 freshman Republicans who won seats.
Gingrich was their commander in chief. They were his troops. Unlike Boehner, he did not lose control of his army. Among Republicans in 1995, Gingrich called the shots. He conceived and orchestrated the GOP shutdown strategy, and not only pressured Senate Republicans to go along, but also about 20 hesitant House GOP moderates.
The Gingrich gambits led to two shutdowns. Clinton outfoxed Gingrich in the first shutdown, in mid-November, by vetoing his budget-slashing bill, furloughing federal workers and putting the political onus for the closure on Republicans.
To gain time to go head-to-head with Clinton at the White House, Gingrich let the government reopen with a short-term spending bill - but sharply upped the ante. He got House and Senate Republicans to pass a mammoth seven-year balanced budget plan with even deeper program cuts and a proposal to privatize Medicare. Clinton met Gingrich and Dole for talks, but rebuffed them, and in mid-December the government went dark again.
By early January, Dole and the Senate Republicans had tired of the shutdown - and Gingrich. The GOP, since it controlled all of Congress, was taking a political beating in the polls. With Dole and the Senate ready to strike a deal with Clinton, Gingrich had to swallow the president's budget package.
But could Gingrich carry his fired-up troops in retreat? When he broke the bad news to a closed session of House Republicans, young militants erupted in rebellion. Gingrich confronted them. They could pick another speaker, he told them, but as long as he was speaker, he would decide on strategy. Republican moderates were relieved. Most conservatives stuck with Gingrich. A budget bill, tilted in Clinton's favor, passed with a bipartisan majority. After a 21-day shutdown, the government reopened.
Today, the missing ingredient is a muscular Republican leader. Boehner, who was No. 3 under Gingrich in 1995, is no peer to him as speaker. He has forfeited control of his army, surrendering his power of decision by agreeing not to send any bill to the House floor without support of the majority within his conference. That gives the Tea Party faction veto power over compromises and enables it to drive strategy for the entire GOP. If political pragmatism at some point tells Boehner that Republicans need an exit strategy, even he must question his own ability to pull it off.
Other Republicans in the Senate, or around the country, may cringe, fearing the take-no-prisoners hardliners could hurt the party. But the most unyielding House belligerents are insulated from that worry.
Partisan gerrymandering has given 140 House Republicans districts so safe that they can coast to victory by margins of 20 percent or more. There's no direct link between their personal fate in 2014 and the GOP's fate nationwide, and that disconnect compounds the difficulties of resolving this shutdown.
The coming clash over the debt ceiling is likely to prolong the current shutdown much further unless powerful outside forces from Wall Street, business, and Republican governors and leaders around the country weigh in to strengthen Boehner's weak hand and to inject political pragmatism into the belligerent ranks of House Republicans.
(Hedrick Smith is a Reuters contributor. The opinions expressed are his own.)