Who, Exactly, Just Blinked in the Debt-Ceiling Showdown?

The Speaker’s offer of a six-week extension in return for talks is a concession — but so is the president’s new willingness to talk.

President Barack Obama speaks during a press conference in the Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House on October 8, 2013.
National Journal
Michael Hirsh
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Michael Hirsh
Oct. 10, 2013, 8:39 a.m.

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.

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