Everything is different this time.
The fiscal showdowns of the past three years have all followed a familiar script: chapter and verse leading to a messy but predictable end. First came the pseudo-negotiators, working away on preliminary proposals and hoping to avoid calamity. Secretly, President Obama and House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) would then decide to go big, aiming for a major bipartisan deal worthy of the moment.
Then came the breakup, the inevitable, acrimonious crash and burn.
Finally, the town elders would rush in and save the day with a desperately negotiated deal that no one loved, but which prevented the federal government from going over the cliff. That’s how it worked with the 2011-debt ceiling negotiations and the New Year’s Day pact to avoid the “fiscal cliff.”
Not this time. A different set of political dynamics has upended the old playbook, and a resolution to this fiscal crisis seems especially remote. Obama, Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) remain far apart, having occasional phone calls but no substantive negotiations.
House Republicans tell me Speaker John Boehner wants to craft a “grand bargain” on fiscal issues as part of the debt-limit deliberations, and during a series of meetings on Wednesday, he urged colleagues to stick with him.
The revelation came quietly. Boehner called groups of members to his Capitol office all day, taking their temperature on the shutdown and the debt limit. It became clear, members say, that Boehner’s chief goal is conference unity as the debt limit nears, and he’s looking at potentially blending a government-spending deal and debt-limit agreement into a larger budget package.
“It’s the return of the grand bargain,” says one House Republican, who requested anonymity to speak freely. “There weren’t a lot of specifics discussed, and the meetings were mostly about just checking in. But he’s looking hard at the debt limit as a place where we can do something big.”
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) offered to open negotiations on tax reform Wednesday if Republicans agree to a clean resolution to reopen the government…
“I commit to name conferees to a budget conference, as soon as the government reopens,” Reid wrote. “This conference would be an appropriate place to have those discussions, where participants could raise whatever proposals — such as tax reform, health care, agriculture, and certainly discretionary spending like veterans, National Parks and NIH — they felt appropriate.”
Boehner’s office said Reid’s terms would give Democrats exactly what they want. “The entire government is shut down right now because Washington Democrats refuse to even talk about fairness for all Americans under ObamaCare,” Boehner spokesman Michael Steel said. “Offering to negotiate only after Democrats get everything they want is not much of an offer.”
Speaker Boehner after meeting at White House: The president reiterated one more time tonight that he will not negotiate
— NBC Nightly News with Lester Holt (@NBCNightlyNews) October 2, 2013
Though leaders usually refrain from referring to each other in their partisan rants against the other chamber, Democratic leaders on Monday mentioned Boehner by name 12 times. It was a noticeable shift from previous shutdown debates when Reid and Democratic messaging lieutenant Charles E. Schumer of New York focused much of their political venom on No. 2 House Republican Eric Cantor or the tea party wing of the GOP.
“I have a very simple message to John Boehner: Let the House vote. Stop trying to force a government shutdown. Let the House work its will, all 435 members, not just the majority,” Reid declared in one of his multiple speeches Tuesday. “If John Boehner blocks this, he will be forcing a government shutdown, and it will be a Republican government shutdown, that’s pure and simple.”
The Nevada Democrat’s camp decided to leak a private email exchange between Krone and Boehner Chief of Staff Mike Sommers. The disclosure of the emails was designed largely to embarrass Boehner for publicly advocating to get rid of what Republicans have called a “special exemption” in Obamcare for lawmakers and staff.
As the shutdown took hold, the House GOP leadership changed course from trying to limit Obamacare to an effort to mitigate the effects of the shutdown. Boehner and his colleagues came up with bills that would fund the National Park Service, the Department of Veterans Affairs, the Smithsonian, the National Gallery of Art, the Holocaust Museum, and the District of Columbia government. The bills were considered under special rules, which in the end meant that House Democrats were able to kill them — before Senate Democrats could kill them.
What distinguished the House agenda on Tuesday was that it wasn’t about Obamacare. The parks bill, for example, did not contain a provision to defund or delay the president’s national health care plan. The Smithsonian bill didn’t either. And so on. One could argue that with the government shut down, Obamacare was effectively defunded, at least for the many days the government remains closed. But the fact is, on Tuesday the Republican focus shifted from going after Obamacare to trying to undo the most visible negative consequences of the shutdown…
Sometimes fights become so intense and so tangled that the original cause becomes obscured. In the government funding battle, the issue that sparked it all, Obamacare, was no longer center stage less than 24 hours after the shutdown began. The fight is now about the shutdown itself, and Obamacare has been pushed to the side.
What stands out here is not the shutdown itself, but the president and Harry Reid’s public refusal even to engage with Republicans. As Matthews documents, most budget gaps are resolved by the participants’ compromising. The quaint notion that there is no obligation to come to a negotiated agreement because one branch of government “won” would be almost certainly regarded as somewhat odd not only by the architects of America’s constitutional order but by the major players in the previous few decades. Eleven shutdowns ended with a deal, five were resolved with an agreement temporarily to fund the government while debate continued, and one ended with Congress overriding a presidential veto. Stand firm if you want, Mr. President, but the history is against you here…
The United States is a constitutional republic, the public institutions in which are decidedly more Charles Montesquieu than Walter Bagehot. All systems are a trade-off, and America’s settlement privileges discord, delay, and separation over efficiency and a strong executive. This is to say that, by design, harsh conflict in the United States yields a standoff rather than a shootout. One can credibly debate the merits of such an arrangement, and certainly one can try to navigate the system as boldly as is politically possible. But crying that the end of the world is nigh strikes me as being hysterical, partisan, and even mendacious — especially when we are discussing a system whose creation story and most recent fracases are available for all to see.
[Republicans] have a hand they could easily make worse by panicking, and which could be good enough for a win or draw if they keep calm. And their odds could improve if they now take a few days vigorously to make their case to the country: that they have acted to fund the government—while protecting Americans from having to buy insurance they don’t want from exchanges they can’t trust, and while reversing the special deal the Obama administration arranged for Congress so that Congress will have to live by the laws they impose on others. They could also stand ready to pass legislation, as they did before the shutdown with respect to military pay, addressing discrete parts of the government that might require exemption from the shutdown as real problems become apparent.
The best thing Speaker Boehner could probably do now is to say it’s obvious Senate Democrats aren’t going to negotiate, that the House GOP remains ready to talk (and the GOP conferees are in town and ready to confer), but that he’s sending the rest of the Republican congressmen home for the next few days in order to talk with their constituents. The members would be liberated from the Beltway bubble, free to make their case where they can best make it, able to fight back against media attempts to exaggerate the consequences of the shutdown, and would have a chance to remind voters, in the exchanges’ first week of operation, of just how bad in how many ways Obamacare is.
The President is treating our veterans the same way he treated school kids when he cancelled their White House tours. When times called for obvious government belt-tightening, he took it out on kids rather than look for anything that would affect him personally. And while our vets are barricaded from the memorial they built with their heroism, the government “slim down” won’t affect Obama’s golf game or his family’s White House chefs.
Meanwhile, Republicans in Congress are attempting to fund the Veterans Administration and other essential functions, but Democrats are blocking them because they want to make any slim down look as awful as possible in order to deflect from what this whole slim down thing is about, which is their Obamacare train wreck…
Obama employees who know in your hearts and souls that punishing our veterans is wrong, know that we have your backs when you say “enough is enough” and then allow our vets to gaze upon our memorials that honor America’s finest. This simple act of civil disobedience will galvanize our nation against atrocious political games, and I promise you’ll sleep well tonight.
Sen. Rand Paul: Peacemaker?…
In a letter to all senators sent Wednesday afternoon, Paul called for a bipartisan coffee meeting on the Capitol steps Thursday morning to “alleviate this tension and partisanship.”
“Tension is at an all-time high here at the Capitol,” Paul said in the letter, which was provided to POLITICO. “We are all anxious about the shutdown and had to send the bulk of our staff home — worried about their future. … Maybe by chatting over coffee together, we can just talk and see if we can get along.”