WASHINGTON (CNN) – He led Republicans into a government shutdown in the 1990s and now former House Speaker Newt Gingrich indicates his party is seriously considering another shutdown threat to force a vote on offshore oil drilling in September.
House Republicans brought Gingrich to the Capitol Wednesday, partly to revive media coverage on their fourth day of protest speeches in the chamber. The rest of Congress is gone for August recess, but Republicans have been speaking on the closed-down House floor, calling for a special session to vote on drilling and energy.
While Gingrich did attract more camera crews, he also pointed to what may be the GOP's next strategy: if Democrats refuse to hold a separate vote on oil drilling, Republicans could try to block the votes needed to keep government running past September 30.
"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."
The precise maneuvering of a shutdown threat is complicated, but it revolves around the fact that key government spending bills expire when the fiscal year ends on September 30th and Congress must vote next month to keep the government operating.
One of those spending bills, for the Department of the Interior, contains the hot-button provision banning offshore oil drilling on the Outer Continental Shelf. If that bill expires, as it is set to do on September 30th, then so does the drilling ban. Republicans believe a majority of the House opposes the ban and thus the voting on whether to keep government running could also become voting on whether to allow offshore drilling.
The parliamentary possibilities are numerous. But Republican Leader John Boehner's office think the votes are there, on both sides of the Capitol, to support drilling and energy expansion. Boehner Spokesman Kevin Smith confirms there are many options on the table for September, including a shutdown threat.
""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, " said Smith.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's office responded quickly with a statement from spokesperson Nadeam Elshami. "Democrats will not shutdown the government," Elshami wrote, "but it is not surprising Newt Gingrich would raise that threat since he and the Republican Party shutdown the government in the 1990s."
Indeed, Gingrich's political game of chicken with then-President Bill Clinton led to two government shutdowns in late 1995 and early 1996. The move backfired and polls showed more Americans blamed Gingrich. But he defends his decisions at the time.
"We shut the federal government down, for a brief period, in order to get a balanced budget," he told CNN Radio, "that was a deliberate systematic strategy."
Now the strategy seems to be an all-out effort to heap pressure on Pelosi, who opposes offshore oil drilling and has so far decided not to schedule a vote.
Democrats call the floor speeches and photo opportunities a "hoax". House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer sent out a statement saying, "Republicans are doing nothing but pushing the failed Johnny-one-note policies of the past."
But Republicans keep adding pressure. After three days of speaking under shadows in the unlit House chamber, the GOP congressmen found themselves facing six television cameras and at least three dozen reporters when Newt Gingrich joined them Wednesday. The equivalent news conference Tuesday morning brought a single camera and approximately ten journalists.
Republican conference chairman Adam Putnam would not say how long he and his fellow conservatives will hold the floor. But there a clear sense of political momentum, as well as a lot of rah-rah, among Republicans rotating in and out of the chamber.
"The energy level is high," Putnam said, "and I think we've got a lot of energy left in us, don't we?" Some 15 Republicans behind him cheered.
The historian Gingrich pushed a broader view. "I think the energy level has shifted between the two parties in the last couple weeks," he said, "and my hunch is there are a lot of Democrats back home who are tap dancing."