Leaders Fail to Bridge Huge Divide on Spending, Health Care

US Speaker of the House John Boehner speaks to the media after a meeting with US President Barack Obama at the White House in Washington, DC, October 2, 2013, on the second day of the government shutdown. 
National Journal
Billy House and Michael Catalini
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Billy House Michael Catalini
Oct. 2, 2013, 6:21 p.m.

With fed­er­al agen­cies par­tially shut down and the gov­ern­ment pro­jec­ted to reach its $16.7 tril­lion debt lim­it later this month, law­makers and Pres­id­ent Obama have be­gun talk­ing, but so far that dis­cus­sion has not even be­gun to bridge the vast canyon between Re­pub­lic­ans and Demo­crats.

Con­gres­sion­al lead­ers emerged Wed­nes­day night from a White House meet­ing with the pres­id­ent giv­ing little def­in­ite sign that a more cor­di­al chapter had be­gun in ne­go­ti­ations over end­ing the gov­ern­ment shut­down, in­clud­ing how to deal with GOP de­mands for con­ces­sions on Obama­care.

Some spec­u­la­tion be­fore the 5:30 p.m. get-to­geth­er was that this ini­tial sum­mit could help warm the chilly re­la­tions, or per­haps even kick-start talks not only to­ward a deal to re­start gov­ern­ment fund­ing, but also over a grander fisc­al bar­gain in­volving the debt ceil­ing.

But the lead­ers ex­ited shortly be­fore 7 p.m. in­dic­at­ing there had been can­did dis­cus­sion but little real pro­gress, and dug them­selves deep­er in­to their po­s­i­tions over who was more at fault for the shut­down. Adding to the angst over the im­passe was the grow­ing pos­sib­il­ity of a fed­er­al de­fault later this month.

House Speak­er John Boehner, R-Ohio, called on Demo­crats to ac­cept the House’s of­fer for a con­fer­ence to hash out dif­fer­ences. He told re­port­ers it was “a nice con­ver­sa­tion, a po­lite con­ver­sa­tion” at the White House but that “the pres­id­ent re­it­er­ated one more time to­night that he will not ne­go­ti­ate.” Aides were not al­lowed in the room.

Sen­ate Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Harry Re­id, D-Nev., and House Minor­ity Lead­er Nancy Pelosi, D-Cal­if., then ap­peared, and cast Re­pub­lic­ans as ob­sessed with the Af­ford­able Care Act.

Re­id told re­port­ers that Boehner should “won’t take yes for an an­swer,” a ref­er­ence to his want­ing the speak­er to al­low a House vote on the Sen­ate’s “clean” ver­sion of a stop­gap fund­ing bill to end the shut­down — one that is not tied to GOP de­mands to de­fund, delay, or in any way dis­mantle the health care law. Both Demo­crat­ic lead­ers said the House has had six months to pass bills amend­ing the health care pro­gram.

Two full days in­to the shut­down, though, and the si­lence between Boehner and Re­id fi­nally ended. The meet­ing at its most ba­sic level did rep­res­ent a con­nec­tion at least, on the heels of angry ac­cus­a­tions by House and Sen­ate Re­pub­lic­ans that Obama had been slam­ming the door on ne­go­ti­at­ing a way out of the shut­down, or on the debt lim­it. But to what ef­fect is not clear.

Re­id had writ­ten to Boehner earli­er Wed­nes­day seek­ing to end their dis­agree­ment and re­open the gov­ern­ment. It was the first pub­lic ac­know­ledg­ment of a cor­res­pond­ence between the lead­ers since the gov­ern­ment shut down at mid­night Monday.

But Re­id’s let­ter merely put in writ­ing what the Sen­ate lead­er has been verbally ask­ing Boehner to do for weeks. Re­id also countered Boehner’s claim that Demo­crats won’t ne­go­ti­ate in con­fer­ence, say­ing he would be will­ing to meet in a big­ger budget con­fer­ence. But that, too, is not a ca­pit­u­la­tion to Re­pub­lic­ans.

Sen­ate Budget Chair­wo­man Patty Mur­ray, D-Wash., has asked more than a dozen times for a con­fer­ence on the budget.

The shut­down is rolling to­ward the Oct. 17 date that Treas­ury pro­jects the na­tion’s $16.7 tril­lion debt cap will be reached. Boehner and House Re­pub­lic­ans say they want spend­ing cuts and ex­pect to make oth­er de­mands in re­turn for agree­ing to ex­tend the na­tion’s abil­ity to bor­row. But Obama and Re­id have said they will not bar­gain over the na­tion’s abil­ity to pay its debts.

With the clock tick­ing, some Sen­ate Re­pub­lic­ans worry that lever­age they an­ti­cip­ated hav­ing in that de­bate will slip away as the shut­down con­tin­ues.

“I guess the thought was if you hold out long enough every­body caves in,” said Sen. Mike Jo­hanns, R-Neb., “but I think I’ve been around Harry Re­id long enough to know he’s got his jaw set.”

Re­pub­lic­ans wanted a clean shot at press­ing their bar­gain­ing power dur­ing the debt lim­it fight, but they don’t ex­pect to have that op­por­tun­ity any­more.

“If we re­main in a shut­down of the gov­ern­ment lead­ing up to the 17th when we have the debt ceil­ing is­sue be­fore us, that would be a mis­take, I think,” said Sen. Johnny Isak­son, R-Ga. “And the debt ceil­ing is a bet­ter piece of le­gis­la­tion to have a ro­bust de­bate on.”

The think­ing is that by in­sist­ing on con­ces­sions on Obama­care, Re­pub­lic­ans have boxed them­selves in and can­not claim a vic­tory un­less the pres­id­ent and Sen­ate Demo­crats give in.

“I think pick­ing Obama­care had no prom­ise from day one,” Jo­hanns said. “The whole idea that you could some­how de­fund Obama­care through a con­tinu­ing res­ol­u­tion just wasn’t leg­ally or fac­tu­ally cor­rect.”

Plus, now that House Re­pub­lic­ans have fused Obama­care and gov­ern­ment fund­ing, the party po­ten­tially loses on fisc­al pri­or­it­ies such as spend­ing caps un­der the Budget Con­trol Act that many con­ser­vat­ives fa­vor.

That leaves Re­pub­lic­ans in a weak po­s­i­tion, one that re­lies on Demo­crats fum­bling. Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, the No. 3 Sen­ate Re­pub­lic­an, said he thinks it’s to the Demo­crats’ ad­vant­age if the de­bate over the CR bleeds in­to the debt ceil­ing.

“I think the Demo­crats really run the risk of over­play­ing their hand here,” he said.

Mean­while, over in the House, some Re­pub­lic­ans say they aren’t sure any deal or com­prom­ise Boehner might reach with Obama and Demo­crat­ic lead­ers — if he can in fact reach one — would hold wa­ter with a ma­jor­ity of his con­fer­ence mem­bers. And that, said the law­makers, will open up ques­tions then of what Boehner will choose to do.

George E. Condon Jr. contributed to this article.
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