Tuesday was the day the jockeying over the budget showdown got tough, nasty, and urgent, as each side sought political cover should Americans find themselves this weekend without a federal government.
After a meeting with bipartisan congressional leaders at the White House, President Obama made a surprise visit in the White House briefing room to tell reporters and the nation that the two sides were “closer than ever,” and “it would be inexcusable for us” to fail “simply because of politics.”
For his part, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, told reporters on Capitol Hill shortly after Obama spoke that while the talks will continue, the $33 billion in cuts that Democrats "insist" is their top number is reached only with "smoke and mirrors."
"That is not acceptable to our members. And we will not agree to that. And we did not agree to that," Boehner said.
Facing pressure from tea party enthusiasts in his own party, Boehner declared, "We want the largest spending cuts that are possible." But he refused to outline what level of cuts is acceptable to House Republicans.
In the Senate, Majority Leader Harry Reid was equally strident, announcing that Republicans "are not negotiating in good faith."
Behind this war of words lies a simple political reality: Both Republicans and Democrats understand that the politics of a government shutdown are dicey. While the shutdown of the mid-1990s benefited Bill Clinton and the Democrats, there’s no guarantee it will play out that way this time around. Meanwhile, each side has its own constituencies to placate. Boehner has the tea party pressuring him while the president, who has angered liberals, does not want to give away too much in the name of compromise.
And that’s just the fight over the current year’s budget. Earlier Tuesday, House Republicans unveiled a long-awaited plan to cut trillions from the federal budget over the next 10 years. Whoever wins—or at least can claim a win—in the government shutdown debate that’s roiling Washington at the moment will be in a much stronger position come the more important, longer-term budget battle.
As Democratic and Republican congressional leaders readied to meet later Tuesday, the president admonished them to “act like grown-ups” and “get the job done.”
“If they can’t sort it out, then I want them back here tomorrow," he said, using his sharpest language to date on the subject. "If that doesn’t work, I’ll invite them back the next today.”
Unless a deal is reached, non-essential functions of the federal government will shut down in three days. The White House issued a memo to agencies and departments asking them to prepare for a possible closure. The Office of Management and Budget will provide more guidance to agencies about which agencies will operate and which will shut down, White House spokesman Jay Carney said.
Obama had played a largely behind-the-scenes role in the budget negotiations, preferring to let Congress work out the details. But with a costly seizure of government functions looming, the president decided to add his voice to the calls of those who say an agreement is urgently needed. By raising his profile, he now takes partial ownership for the outcome of the negotiation, but also gives himself political cover should negotiations fail to produce a breakthrough.
The White House believes that Boehner has been pulled away from a compromise position because of pressure within his party. Republicans say the White House is proposing many illusory cuts in mandatory programs, but at least 10 percent of Republican cuts may be similarly categorized.
“The vast majority of the cuts that have been put forward, just as has been true in the Republican budget, are direct cuts out of domestic discretionary spending,” Obama said. “There are some cuts that they propose that have to do with mandatory spending."
Earlier, after meeting with Obama and Democrats at the White House, Boehner said he would “not be put in a box and forced to choose between two options that are bad for the country.” The Hobson’s choice was between a government shutdown and inadequate spending cuts.
Earlier Tuesday, Obama rejected another short-term agreement, including one floated by Republicans to cut $12 billion and extend Pentagon spending for the rest of the year.
The president did not address the $4 trillion 2012 budget proposal unveiled by House Republican Paul Ryan on Tuesday. He said debate about the 2012 budget will come later.
He implied that Republicans were unwilling to compromise, even though Democrats and the White House had agreed to roughly $73 billion in cuts, which is the number originally floated by Boehner last week. Conservatives are pushing Boehner not to budge from his pledge to cut $100 billion.
“The only question is whether politics and ideology is going to get in the way of preventing a government shutdown,” Obama said, adding that the economy would suffer “if there is a disruption.”
“That is not the way to run a budget,” he said.
Obama stopped short of threatening a veto if Republicans try to attach ideological riders to the bill, but condemned them as petty and irresponsible.
“We don’t have time for games,” he said.
Republicans believe their party will be blamed if the government is shut down. Most Americans say they want the parties to come to a compromise, rather than to stick to their positions. As the negotiations grow more heated, there’s no telling if they’ll get their wish.