Johnny Isakson splashes cold water on talk of another shutdown

U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson with then GOP gubernatorial candidate Brian Kemp in a 2018 file photo. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM
U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson with then GOP gubernatorial candidate Brian Kemp in a 2018 file photo. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM



By Nov. 3, 2020, we may look back on last Thursday's floor speech by U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson as the dash of cold water that saved David Perdue's re-election bid, along with the fortunes of many another Georgia Republican.

Without that speech, and the subsequent votes Isakson and five other Republican senators cast against 35 days of governmental paralysis, the GOP was about to become the anti-federalist party.

Not in the way our Founding Fathers and Mothers understood the title, but as the party that was perfectly willing to see the household finances of hundreds of thousands of federal employees flushed down the toilet for the sake of an ill-defined political point.

On Monday morning, federal workers returned to work, well aware that the deal to unlock their offices and make good their lost wages has a Feb. 15 expiration date. Isakson says not to worry – that it won’t happen again.

“If we have another vote like we did last Thursday, there’ll be a lot more than six of us crossing over to get something done. Votes determine everything, and I think last Thursday demonstrated that we all want to solve the problem,” Isakson said that same morning. “Not all of us, but enough of us to where we can start talking about it.”

Isakson had been stewing about the shutdown for days, at one point excoriating his colleagues on the Senate floor for “not doing a damned thing while the American people are suffering.”

By now, you probably know what came next. Two bills made it to the Senate floor for votes. One was President Donald Trump’s bill that gave him the $5.7 billion he wanted for his wall, and temporary relief for immigrants, illegal and not, that Democrats wanted to protect. The Democratic bill simply called for the reopening of the government and three weeks of negotiation over the border wall.

Both bills were defeated. But they cleared the way for Trump’s surrender the next day, as insisted upon by Democrats, but with one addition – future talks would be conducted within a House-Senate conference committee. That’s important. It pluralizes negotiations that had become a personalized tug-of-war between Trump and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

“That vote on Thursday of last week was not planned. I made a speech at our caucus on that day, for lunch, with the vice president in the room, who was there to try and get us to stick together,” Isakson said. That’s where the Georgia senator announced he would vote not just for the Republican bill, but the Democratic one as well.

“It may not guarantee the wall, but we’re not going to guarantee the wall with either of these votes. We’re just buying votes when you’re talking about the wall,” he recounted. ‘I wanted to send a signal that I’m going to try and keep the people at work and solve the problem, not play politics with the people’s jobs, their payroll and the country.”

Isakson described the caucus meeting – 21 more senators would speak after he did – as a sober one. “I’m not getting into names and who said what, but the room stayed quiet. Everybody said their piece, and we had a really frank, good discussion. There was no animosity, one way or another, from anybody,” Isakson said.

On the Senate floor, Isakson opened with a wry observation about the unintended consequences of federal shutdowns. The 1995 version required paid White House staffers to stay home and allowed an intern named Monica Lewinsky to come into closer-than-usual contact with President Bill Clinton, Isakson noted. The same shutdown cost House Republicans several seats and Speaker Newt Gingrich his job.

Isakson would replace Gingrich as the Sixth District representative – the start of his congressional career, he admitted. “I got everybody’s attention, didn’t I? All the Democrats were laughing,” Isakson said.

But then Isakson got serious – and this is why he and I were talking four days later. In essence, Isakson told his Senate colleagues – Republican ones, in particular, this shutdown didn’t begin Dec. 11, when Trump declared he would be “proud to shut down the government” over his wall.

Nor did it begin on Dec. 22, when the cash ran out. This shutdown began, by Isakson’s estimation, on Friday, May 18, 2007, in a Gwinnett County convention hall where the Georgia GOP had gathered.

A presidential election season was gearing up. Since 2005, Isakson and his Georgia colleague Saxby Chambliss had been original members of the Gang of Eight, a group of senators working on immigration reform. Negotiations were headed up by Democrat Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts and John McCain of Arizona, who would clinch the GOP nomination for president the next year.

Isakson and Chambliss were in Gwinnett to explain their immigration reform bill, which had just surfaced. But also at the gathering were two presidential wannabees – the aforementioned Newt Gingrich and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. And it was a TV sweeps week, Isakson noted.

The immigration deal would have given legal status to undocumented workers then in the United States with a renewable “Z” visa. The visa would have required payment of $5,000 in fines, and those seeking permanent residency would have to return to their country of origin to apply.

“Newt Gingrich was going to run for president, so he decides in Gwinnett County to make a big speech to the Gwinnett GOP. He declares the bill, which he didn’t even have a copy of yet, to be amnesty,” Isakson told me. “And it was all over. It died, and it’s been dying ever since.”

A phrase from Isakson’s Senate speech of last week stands out. “Political consultants found [immigration reform] an easy way to run against people in the party,” he said.

In other words, if you keep running to the right on immigration in a Republican primary, eventually you run into a wall. In this case, Donald Trump’s wall. But Washington isn’t run by GOP primary rules anymore. And so we had a president who calculated that the only way to win that wall was to blow up the government.

Trump needs to learn how to declare victory and walk away, Isakson said. It’s not happening now. “When he speaks, he says if we don’t get back to where I want us to be, I’m going to do this again,” Isakson said.

Which brings us back to U.S. Sen. David Perdue and his 2020 re-election bid. Perdue has plighted his troth with Trump. This is simply fact. The alliance boosts the former businessman in rural Georgia, but a recent Journal-Constitution poll also showed Perdue with significant strength in the suburbs of metro Atlanta. He is in good shape to meet a Democratic challenger. Perhaps Stacey Abrams, if Chuck Schumer gets his wish.

But suppose Trump had refused to end this most recent federal shutdown, or decides that we need another, larger one. The president says federal workers are mostly Democrats, which in Georgia is almost certainly not true. But they could become mostly Democrats — if hurt badly, or if they witness other federal colleagues treated in that manner.

According to Governing magazine, the federal government employs roughly 2 million civilian workers. Another 1.3 million are military personnel. In Georgia, we have roughly 97,000 full-time federal workers. Let us assume that each one of those workers has a voting-age family member.

Another shutdown could produce a 2020 bloc vote of just under 200,000 federal workers and their families in Georgia. Needless to say, in the just-finished race for governor, Republican Brian Kemp beat Democrat Stacey Abrams by only 55,000 votes.

David Perdue may need Donald Trump to win re-election to the Senate in 2020. But Perdue also needs Johnny Isakson, and Republicans like him, to keep the Trump train between the guard rails.

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