The Republican-led House and the White House are once again on a collision course, and the endpoint of their game of budgetary chicken is a federal government shutdown, starting October 1. We've seen this movie before, and we think we know how it ends: Both sides give enough, a deal is reached, and partisans of each camp are generally unhappy.
This time may be different. Every plot gets stale after a while, and Washington may be getting bored with repeating the same story for the third year running. But boredom alone won't shut down the government.
The big change this time is that all the major players — President Obama, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), congressional Democrats, and Tea Party Republicans — each have their own reasons not to compromise on the big stumbling block: The Tea Partiers insist that any budget agreement neuter ObamaCare by stripping it of funding; that's a nonstarter for Democrats.
Here's a look at each camp, and what they have to gain (and lose) by riding out the looming political storm:
The Obama White House "has been annoyingly open to concessions even when it has all the leverage," says Noah Scheiber at The New Republic. But "in my own conversations with White House officials (and people close to them) over the past few months, I've picked up a clear willingness to allow a shutdown if Republicans refuse to budge" on the budget this time. What's changed from past fiscal fights? Basically, Scheiber says, Obama doesn't have to face re-election anymore:
In 2011, [Obama aides] were queasy about the risks a shutdown posed to the rickety economy, which could ultimately hurt the president. This year, they believe a shutdown would strengthen their hand politically, which is almost certainly true given the public outrage that would rain down on Republicans. One official pointed out that the pressure for spending cuts has subsided with the deficit falling so rapidly on its own. [New Republic]
On Monday, Obama indicated that, at least in public, he's solidly against a government shutdown: "Let's stop the threats. Let's stop the political posturing. Let's keep our government open. Let's pay our bills on time. Let's pass a budget."
Tea Party Republicans
The conventional wisdom is that a government shutdown would hurt Republicans. History endorses the idea, and current polling bears it out. But a sizable faction of House Republicans doesn't buy it.
Instead, Tea Party–aligned Republicans believe "a weakened President Obama will back down if there is a standoff over funding ObamaCare and preventing a government shutdown," say Erik Wasson and Peter Schroeder at The Hill. Why would they believe the president would sign anything that would undermine his biggest domestic achievement?
At least 43 conservatives want the GOP leadership to go for broke, asserting that Obama has been damaged by stumbles over Syria and by several delays in implementing the Affordable Care Act.... Conservatives cite recent polling to buttress their case. Following Obama's aborted attempt to get congressional backing for an attack on Syria, Fox News found public disapproval of Obama's job performance at an all-time high of 54 percent and his approval rating at 40 percent, equal to his all-time low. [The Hill]
The GOP probably would take the blame for a government shutdown, says Erick Erickson at RedState, but it's worth the cost. If Republicans "held the line until defunding happened, they would be rewarded."
The public likes winners. And right now "Defund It!" is the winning message. It has boosted the GOP's popularity and Congress' approval rating. It will be devastating for the GOP if they show voters just how much they are not willing to fight. It'll be "read my lips" all over again. [RedState]
As a political matter, "Republican leaders know it's in their best interest not to have the government shut down," says National Journal's Ben Terris. And nobody knows that more than Boehner, who's still publicly holding out hope that the Tea Partiers will sign onto a plan that would separate ObamaCare funding from the rest of the budget.
Fat chance the GOP dissidents will sign on for that, says The New Republic's Scheiber. But "in the end, a shutdown is in Boehner's interest, too."
Boehner clearly prefers to avoid a government shutdown. He's spent months figuring out how to do that, fully aware of the political debacle it would entail. Unfortunately, it's now clear that the only way he can induce the political isolation he typically relies on to prod his caucus into semi-rational action is by shutting down the government and inviting the public backlash he's been so desperate to avoid. Boehner simply has no other way of talking sense into his people, no other hope of making the House GOP governable. [The New Republic]
Jonathan Bernstein at The Washington Post disagrees. The thing about a government shutdowns is that it ends — and when it does, he says, the Tea Party wing will loudly complain that "if only Boehner and congressional Republicans had held out a little while longer, Obama would have surrendered and Republicans would have won a total victory."
Bottom line: Expect Barack Obama to be a tougher negotiator this time around and expect Boehner to do all he can to cut a deal to avoid disaster. [Washington Post]
Boehner may need to rely on House Democrats to pass a budget or stopgap spending measure, but there's a good chance he'd have to pay for the support with higher spending levels than the GOP wants. Like Tea Party Republicans, congressional Democrats — fresh off defeating Obama's top choice for Federal Reserve chairman, Larry Summers — believe they have the leverage in this political fight.
Even if Obama seems inclined to accept Republicans' demands for keeping the budget at lower sequestration levels, says The New Republic's Scheiber, "congressional Democrats seem less willing to support him than in the past":
They believe they can demand much more in exchange for saving the GOP from a shutdown.... Bottom line: Democrats across the board are more willing to broach a shutdown than at any other time during the past three years. [New Republic]