Verbal Volleys Yield No Agreement — and No Solution

WASHINGTON, DC - OCTOBER 08: U.S. President Barack Obama speaks during a press conference in the Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House on October 8, 2013 in Washington, DC. Now in the eighth day of a government shutdown, Obama and his Democratic allies have reiterated to House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) that they will negotiate but only after Republicans vote to approve a clean extension of government spending and authorize an increase in the debt limit.
National Journal
Billy House and Michael Catalini
Billy House Michael Catalini
Oct. 8, 2013, 5:28 p.m.

There was plenty of back-and-forth, but no break­through — and cer­tainly no sur­render — as con­gres­sion­al lead­ers and Pres­id­ent Obama ar­gued be­fore the cam­er­as over re­start­ing gov­ern­ment and pro­tect­ing the na­tion’s abil­ity to bor­row.

Obama said that if Con­gress were to pass a tem­por­ary bill to open gov­ern­ment, he’d be will­ing to ne­go­ti­ate on a range of con­ces­sions de­man­ded by Re­pub­lic­ans, in­clud­ing those touch­ing on health care. “The bot­tom line is either you’re hav­ing good-faith ne­go­ti­ations in which there’s give and take, or you’re not,” Obama said at a Tues­day news con­fer­ence.

But Obama as­ser­ted that con­gres­sion­al Re­pub­lic­ans in­stead have “de­cided to run out the clock un­til there’s a gov­ern­ment shut­down or the pos­sib­il­ity of de­fault, think­ing that it would give them more lever­age…. And that is not how our gov­ern­ment is sup­posed to run.”

Soon after, House Speak­er John Boehner, R-Ohio, gave re­port­ers his in­ter­pret­a­tion of what Obama meant: “What the pres­id­ent said today was, if there’s un­con­di­tion­al sur­render by Re­pub­lic­ans, he’ll sit down and talk to us.”

“That’s not the way gov­ern­ment works,” Boehner ad­ded.

But ex­actly how gov­ern­ment will work to re­solve the fisc­al im­passe re­mained the ma­jor un­answered ques­tion Tues­day.

Sen­ate Demo­crats have not moved from their pub­lic po­s­i­tion, hop­ing that Re­pub­lic­ans will get so much pres­sure from bey­ond Wash­ing­ton they’ll be com­pelled to ac­cept the Demo­crats’ debt-ceil­ing le­gis­la­tion, leav­ing the con­tinu­ing res­ol­u­tion to re­start gov­ern­ment as an open ques­tion.

“I think in the next week you are go­ing to hear the busi­ness com­munity, Wall Street and the busi­ness com­munity, really come down hard on this place,” said Sen. Chuck Schu­mer, D-N.Y. “They won’t have an ef­fect on the tea-party people, but they’ll have an ef­fect on main­stream Re­pub­lic­ans.”

House Re­pub­lic­ans, mean­while, de­cided Tues­day to push an idea that would out­right scrap the nor­mal le­gis­lat­ive pro­cesses in fa­vor of cre­at­ing a spe­cial bi­par­tis­an, bicam­er­al com­mit­tee to sort out these fisc­al is­sues. A bill to cre­ate such a com­mit­tee passed in a 224-197 vote Tues­day night.

The pro­posed “De­fi­cit Re­duc­tion and Eco­nom­ic Growth Work­ing Group” would have 10 House mem­bers and 10 sen­at­ors, and would work to make re­com­mend­a­tions on how to re­form spend­ing pro­grams, change the na­tion’s stat­utory pub­lic-debt lim­it, and re­com­mend over­all levels of dis­cre­tion­ary spend­ing for fisc­al 2014. But con­gres­sion­al Demo­crats and Obama quickly panned the idea. Some dubbed it as a scary rep­lica of the su­per com­mit­tee formed in 2011 that failed to find $1.2 tril­lion in sav­ings, lead­ing to im­pos­i­tion of deep se­quester cuts that both parties de­plore.

“Not again. Oh, my gosh,” said House Demo­crat­ic Caucus Chair­man Xavi­er Be­cerra, D-Cal­if. Be­cerra re­minded re­port­ers that he had been a mem­ber of that first su­per com­mit­tee, and re­called “there was noth­ing su­per about it.”

In the Sen­ate, Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Harry Re­id, D-Nev., used a rare live quor­um call to sum­mon mem­bers to the cham­ber to hear a speech out­lining his po­s­i­tion: House Re­pub­lic­ans should ac­cept the Sen­ate con­tinu­ing res­ol­u­tion as well as the Sen­ate’s clean debt-ceil­ing meas­ure, which is ex­pec­ted to hit the floor later this week.

Re­id also poun­ded the point that he com­prom­ised with Boehner on the top-line budget fig­ure in the Sen­ate CR. (Minor­ity Lead­er Mitch Mc­Con­nell, R-Ky., re­jects it be­cause the Budget Con­trol Act caps re­quire lower spend­ing levels.)

“It’s the biggest com­prom­ise I ever made in my ca­reer as a mem­ber of Con­gress, some 31 years,” Re­id said. “It may not sound like much to some people, but it was really big.”

Re­id also in­tro­duced a meas­ure to ex­tend the debt ceil­ing, a move that aides say set up a likely vote on the le­gis­la­tion later this week, and he in­sists his caucus is united be­hind his strategy.

Sen­ate Re­pub­lic­ans have said they ex­pect to see some kind of con­ces­sion over the debt lim­it, per­haps en­ti­tle­ment re­form or long-term budget cuts. The point, they say, is that there must be something.

“I’ve been in pub­lic of­fice my en­tire adult life and when you learn this stuff, one of the first things they teach you in Poli-Sci 101, al­ways, al­ways leave the op­pos­i­tion a door to get out,” said Sen. James Risch, R-Idaho.

Asked wheth­er the Sen­ate may be mov­ing a clean debt-ceil­ing meas­ure this week as a way to in­ocu­late Demo­crats from pub­lic blame if the coun­try does go bey­ond Treas­ury’s dead­line, Sen. Chris­toph­er Coons, D-Del., said it’s a way to com­pel law­makers to get on board.

“It would put great­er pres­sure on those sen­at­ors who re­cog­nize that de­fault is an un­ac­cept­able op­tion and gives them a vehicle to say “˜I’m still op­posed to the Af­ford­able Care Act, I’m still op­posed to fund­ing its im­ple­ment­a­tion, but I’m gonna vote for a clean debt ceil­ing be­cause that’s the re­spons­ible thing to do,’ “ Coons said. “We may — we may — see a num­ber of sen­at­ors break with the Re­pub­lic­an caucus on this.”

But Sen­ate Re­pub­lic­ans, even mod­er­ates and those will­ing to work across the aisle, are skep­tic­al that the clean debt-ceil­ing ex­ten­sion will have any real ef­fect in de­fus­ing ten­sions.

“Sup­pose we passed it,” said Sen. John Mc­Cain, R-Ar­iz. “It would go over to the House and go nowhere. It’s all Ka­buki theat­er. What’s the point? The point is to try to gain some pub­li­city lever­age. That’s not really deadly ser­i­ous be­cause Harry Re­id knows what’s gonna hap­pen when it goes over to the House, just like the House people know what’s gonna hap­pen when a bill comes over here.”

But, as Mc­Cain sees it, Con­gress and the White House have to and will find a way out of the cur­rent crisis. Why?

“None of us like to see the con­dem­na­tion of the Amer­ic­an people,” he said.

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