If you're wondering who just blinked first in the tense back-and-forth between Democrats and Republicans over the government shutdown and debt-ceiling deadline, the answer is: It's a photo finish.
In fact, both Speaker John Boehner and President Obama are blinking—that is, giving up ground—at nearly the same time. Picking up on hints from Treasury Secretary Jack Lew on Wednesday that the president was open to a short-term debt-ceiling increase, Boehner and the House Republican leadership obliged him. On Thursday morning, they came out of a meeting to announce they'd support "clean" legislation of the sort Obama wanted to raise the debt limit—but only for the next six weeks. Then, during that period, Boehner and his team said, the president needs to sit down and talk about concrete spending cuts and other issues.
In his remarks, the House speaker clearly intended to convey that he was meeting Obama "halfway," and that the GOP was holding out on an agreement to open the government until Boehner heard something more from the president in talks scheduled for this afternoon. "That's a conversation we're going to have with the president today," Boehner said.
So who's making the greater concession? We'll likely find out over the next day or so. But it's obvious there is marginal movement toward the middle, in a foot-dragging way, from what had been two hard-line positions. Boehner, taking his cue from the tea-party sub-caucus in the House, had initially insisted on presidential concessions related to the start-up of Obamacare this month. He appears to be letting that slide, to the consternation of the tea party. Suddenly all the talk is about spending in general—entitlements and tax reform—not Obamacare, which Boehner and his team have come to accept that the president cannot budge on, given that it is his signature domestic achievement. In separate op-eds Wednesday, both House Majority Leader Eric Cantor and Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan both called for debt-ceiling negotiations without mentioning health care at all.
And yet Obama, even while insisting that he will refuse to negotiate anything but a clean continuing resolution while the government is shut down, and that he will not talk about concessions either in exchange for raising the debt ceiling, appears to be already doing that, to a degree. He will almost certainly have to do more of it. Even with a six-week extension—which Obama is expected to sign—the GOP is still holding the government "hostage," in the Democrats' favorite description. Adding to the pressure is a provision that the Treasury Department not use "extraordinary measures" to pay down the debt during the extension period; if the president accepts that as well, the approach will look even more extortionate.
Lew, in his testimony, gave a nifty performance in saying yes and no at the same time, denying that the president would ever negotiate under threat while at the same allowing that "if everything is on the table … there could be a serious conversation."
That, folks, is probably what we're about to see begin.