In shutdown war, Democrats may be losing the PR battle

Republicans continued to criticize President Obama and Senate Democrats on Monday for refusing to negotiate over the partial government shutdown that the House GOP instigated last week. And so far, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has also refused to entertain any of the rifle-shot continuing resolutions that Republicans have pushed through the House, which would have reopened such popular programs as the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the National Institutes of Health.

The question is, how long can Democrats ignore the GOP’s calls for deal-cutting before the public stops blaming Republicans for picking the fight and starts blaming Democrats for prolonging it?

Unlike previous impasses, the two sides aren’t shuttling proposals back and forth for resolving their differences. That ended Sept. 30, when the Senate rejected the House’s third and final version of the short-term funding resolution (HJ Res 59). Senate Democrats stiff-armed the House’s request for a conference committee the following day.

Instead, each side appears to be waiting for external forces -- public pressure, perhaps, or the threat of an economic calamity -- to make the other one cave. And as I argued Friday, the GOP message seems the more powerful one, as well as coming across as more reasonable. After all, outside of those on the ideological extremes, the public likes the idea of elected officials resolving their disputes at the negotiating table, giving something to get something.


Granted, there’s more than a little cynicism at work when Republicans force a shutdown by trying to drive a stake through the 2010 healthcare law, knowing full well that they don’t have the votes to override the inevitable presidential veto, then call on Democrats to join them in funding vital efforts such as FEMA. The cynicism reached mind-boggling levels Friday when the House GOP cried crocodile tears over the supplemental nutrition program for Women, Infants and Children, which they’ve been trying to cut for the last few years.

But those details are down in the budgetary weeds, well below the public’s radar. So too is the fact that Republicans spent six months blocking repeated efforts by Democrats in both chambers to negotiate a budget for fiscal 2014, which could have addressed all the issues they say they’re eager to talk about now.

(To go even further into the weeds, there are two reasons Republicans would want to go to conference on the continuing resolution instead of the budget resolution. Stan Collender of Qorvis notes that House rules would have allowed Democrats to force votes on nonbinding but potentially embarrassing motions to instruct the conferees -- e.g., to agree to drop the House proposal to turn Medicare into a voucher program -- if no deal had been reached within 20 days. And Maya Macguineas of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget observed that Senate Republicans can’t filibuster the reconciliation instructions in a budget conference report, while they can use the threat of a filibuster to help shape the conference report on a CR.)

The only perception that matters is what voters see now. And as we’re about to enter Week 2 of the shutdown, they see one side (the GOP) calling for talks and the other side saying “Not until you reopen the government and raise the debt ceiling.”

Obama and Senate Democrats apparently remain confident that the GOP will buckle first. Visiting FEMA on Monday, Obama reiterated that House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) could end the shutdown simply by letting the House vote on the Senate’s “clean” continuing resolution, which Democrats and more than a dozen Republicans have said they would support. That measure would fund federal agencies at the lower level suggested by the House, but only for six weeks, not the 2 1/2 months the House proposed.

“I have said from the start of the year that I’m happy to talk to Republicans about anything related to the budget,” Obama said. “There’s not a subject that I am not willing to engage in, work on, negotiate, and come up with common-sense compromises on. What I’ve said is that I cannot do that under the threat that if Republicans don’t get 100% of their way, they’re going to either shut down the government or they are going to default on America’s debt so that America for the first time in history does not pay its bills. That is not something I will do. We’re not going to establish that pattern.”

In rebuttal, Republicans have noted the 17 times that the government has gone into a partial shutdown since 1977, as well as the three times since 1782 it has defaulted on its debts -- leaving unsaid the fact that such shutdowns are bad for the economy and even a technical default could be ruinous. More to the point, Republicans have noted the many times in the past that presidents, including the current one, have negotiated with Congress to resolve similar disputes.

I get the point Democrats are making here: If the GOP can force concessions on the 2010 healthcare law by taking the government hostage, where will it stop? Yet the Democrats run the risk of appearing intransigent the longer the impasse drags on with no bargaining.

The Times’ editorial board called on Democrats last week to help the House GOP leadership “find a way out of the corner Republicans have painted themselves into.” National Journal columnist Ron Fournier has suggested one way to do so: by negotiating over long-term budget issues but not on Obamacare.

Such a shift from the narrow focus on the 2010 law to a broad focus on entitlements, taxes and overall spending levels makes great sense in theory. Yet Obama and congressional leaders have been trying to reach a deal on these very issues since 2011, to no avail. Although the mutual dislike of the across-the-board sequester cuts appears to have motivated lawmakers more than before, weeks of talks between the White House and Senate Republicans in the summer produced nary a glimmer of compromise on a budgetary “grand bargain.”

In fact, when those talks broke down late in August, I wrote, “Congress started the official countdown this week: It’s T-minus 31 days to a government shutdown.” It’s now T-plus seven days, and the clock just keeps ticking.


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