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Don't fall for the 'grand bargain' football, Charlie Brown
House Speaker John Boehner is pulling a Lucy, floating the elusive grand bargain as a way out of the shutdown and debt limit fight
 
John Boehner is once more holding out the grand bargain football. Who will fall for it?
John Boehner is once more holding out the grand bargain football. Who will fall for it? Charles Schulz/YouTube

The government shutdown hasn't been good for many people — maybe New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R), as Matt Lewis argues at The Week — but it has been a boon to the career of National Review reporter Robert Costa. Costa has proved an indispensable source of knowledge into what House Republicans are thinking and doing, and his articles are regularly cited by other journalists and commentators on both sides of the political divide.

Late Wednesday, Costa had another scoop, reporting, "House Republicans tell me Speaker John Boehner wants to craft a 'grand bargain' on fiscal issues as part of the debt-limit deliberations." By midnight on Thursday, Costa already had an update, quoting a Democrat privy to a fruitless White House meeting between President Obama and congressional leaders. The source said:

Boehner raised the prospect of a grand bargain-type deal at the White House meeting and was laughed at because everyone feels like they've heard this song and dance before. The general feeling is, if he's really ready to make some tough choices — read, revenue — then great. But the history of this from where we sit is Boehner talking a big game, then bailing as soon as he runs into the inevitable resistance from a certain faction in his caucus. [via National Review]

Just because Boehner was laughed at "doesn't mean the pitch is dead, at least according to House insiders," Costa adds. "In conversations late tonight, several of them say it remains one of the best options for Boehner, who is struggling to balance the pressure to compromise with his conference's conservative bent."

Boehner and Obama got pretty far on their grand bargain in 2011, only to have it fall apart in a shower of mutual recrimination and finger-pointing. So why is the grand bargain back on the table?

"Most House Republicans privately concede they're fighting a battle they're unlikely to win," say Politico's Jake Sherman and Carrie Budoff Brown, "and to avoid a prolonged shutdown and a disastrous debt default, Washington has to create a package so big that lifting the borrowing limit and funding the government is merely a sideshow."

Much of Washington loves the idea of the grand bargain. Obama wants one. Boehner wants one. But it's not going to happen, at least not this way. It's like the recurring joke in the Peanuts comics, where Lucy swears she's going to let Charlie Brown kick the football this time, and he always falls for it:

Don't fall for it. Don't be Charlie Brown.

The first obstacle to a warmed-over grand bargain is Obama and the Democrats.

Republicans may want a "way out of the cul-de-sac" they've driven themselves into, as one senior GOP leadership source tells Politico, but Democrats aren't eager to help them, especially not when House Republicans tie a deal to raising the debt limit. As Democrats see it, they're only asking for Congress to pay its bills and for the government to reopen with no strings attached, at funding levels much lower than they want. What is there to bargain with?

Obama emphasized that point on Wednesday, in an interview with CNBC. "As soon as we get a clean piece of legislation that reopens the government, and there is a majority for that right now in the House of Representatives," he said, "until we make sure Congress allows Treasury to pay for things that Congress itself already authorized, we are not going to engage in a series of negotiations."

Why is Obama so unwilling to deal before the debt limit is raised? He has no choice, says Slate's Matthew Yglesias. Negotiating a grand bargain with Boehner now might be good for Obama in the short term, but "the problem with 'cutting a deal' with Republicans is that it essentially makes an eventual breach inevitable." And a credit breach in 2013 is no worse than one in 2017 or 2022. Basically, Ygelsias says, "if the hostage-taking gambit works, then it will be used over and over again until it goes wrong."

Yglesias has been beating this drum for a while, and his basic argument is that in demanding substantive concessions for raising the debt ceiling, "Republicans are essentially asking for an end to constitutional government in the United States." That may sound a little hyperbolic, but here's his historical analogy:

The British system of government used to feature a ruling monarch who was checked in limited ways by two houses of parliament. Over time, those houses of parliament leveraged their control over tax hikes into overall control of the government.... And that's the House's proposal here. The president should become an elected figurehead (not dissimilar to the elected presidents of Germany, Israel, or Italy) whose role is simply to assent to the policy preferences of the legislative majority. [Slate]

In that view, the only thing Republican have to offer that Obama might accept is an abolition of the debt limit. And that's unlikely, to say the least.

The second obstacle to a grand bargain is House Republicans.

Democrats may be holding firm on their no-negotiaion-before-debt-limit position, but Republicans aren't convinced, says Jonathan Chait at New York. "They assert over and over that Democrats will fold, and seem to believe this."

That might have given Boehner an opening, if he were in control of his caucus. But the powerful Tea Party faction has its demands. "We're not going to be disrespected," Rep. Marlin Stutzman (R-Ind.) tells The Washington Examiner. "We have to get something out of this. And I don't know what that even is."

If most of ObamaCare is out of reach, for now, Tea Partiers believe they could still receive concessions in entitlement reform, deficit reduction, and tax reform as part of any grand bargain.

The problem is, grand bargaining takes two sides. So far, the House GOP discussions have been "all about what Republicans could win — and little about what they'll give in return," says National Review's Costa.

And today's Republican caucus is unlikely to offer anything Democrats consider worth opening discussions over. There was a time when a group of wise elders from both parties could sit down and hammer out a budget agreement, says Slate's John Dickerson. In 1990, for example, President George H.W. Bush reached a landmark deal with the Democratic House speaker and GOP Senate majority leader. But those days are gone, and "part of today's impasse results from that meeting." Dickerson notes:

Among conservatives, it was seen as a great moment of apostasy, the moment President Bush gave up on his "no new taxes" pledge. House Minority Whip Newt Gingrich refused to go along with the deal, and generations of Tea Party conservatives have used this as a teaching moment. Sacrificing your principles to get a deal in divided government is a sin. When they come to Washington, they intone, they will not make the same mistake. That viewpoint is the dominant one controlling the Republican Party at the moment. [Slate]

That means a grand bargain is "Washington's Bigfoot," Dickerson says: Often hunted, never captured. Even if Boehner and Obama could reach a deal among themselves, conservatives wouldn't accept it, he says. "The problem with deals worked out in closed-door rooms is that they have to live outside the room when participants try to sell them to their parties."

Paul Mirengoff at PowerLine is a little more hopeful, but not much. "Boehner's grand bargain strategy sounds too good to be true, and probably is," he says. Boehner is probably sincere in his desire, and it may be the best of a lot of bad options, but it's unlikely that "the Democrats will enable him to achieve a good bargain." And as House Republicans "see their vision of a grand bargain turn into a grand illusion, and the economy very possibly about to take a big hit, they likely will back down quickly," Mirengoff predicts.

The third big obstacle is the calendar.

Plainly put, "there isn't much time to work out a fiscal grand bargain," says Suzy Khimm at MSNBC. Congress and the White House have been trying and failing to do this for more than two years, and they even blew through the sequestration barrier that was supposed to force them to reach a big deal. It's a little unrealistic to think the two warring factions, with more bad blood between them, could do that now, in two weeks.

 
Peter Weber is a senior editor at TheWeek.com, and has handled the editorial night shift since 2008. A graduate of Northwestern University, Peter has worked at Facts on File and The New York Times Magazine. He speaks Spanish and Italian, and plays in an Austin rock band.

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