This time, it’s Boehner, not Obama, who needs to avoid a government shutdown

September 16, 2013

Barack Obama pledged again today that he “will not negotiate over the full faith and credit of the United States” — that is, over the debt limit. Remember that until Republicans took control of the House in 2011, the debt limit had never been used to force significant substantive changes — because, after all, both sides ultimately support raising the debt limit, so it’s a lousy negotiating chip. On the other hand, it’s long been accepted that the debt limit vote is one that Members of Congress don’t like to take, and so finding some symbolic fig leaf (or bundling it with other legislation) does have a long history.

However, Noam Scheiber makes the case, in a piece generating some chatter today, for why there will be a government shutdown this time. His basic take is that Obama has every incentive to hold the line even if it results in a shutdown, because he no longer has to worry about reelection and the hit to the economy a shutdown it would entail. Scheiber also says John Boehner might have an incentive to allow a shutdown — in order to jar conservative Republicans to their senses and force them to accept the reality of their own limited negotiating leverage.

But make no mistake, the incentives are still heavily for Boehner to cut a deal and avoid a shutdown at all costs.

It’s true that the big change since 2011 and 2012 is that the president, without an upcoming election, is probably more inclined to take the short-term economic hit that a shutdown would cause. On the other hand, while Boehner has been a pretty good Speaker and has successfully helped Republicans avoid their worst impulses, I don’t really agree that this time Boehner’s incentive is to accept a shutdown.

Why? Because the key think to know about a shutdown is that it will end. Maybe after a day; maybe after a month. It will end, and it will end with something that both Boehner (and mainstream conservatives) and Obama (and mainstream liberals) can live with. And at that point, there is nothing more certain in this world than that radical “conservatives” will believe 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.

So a shutdown (or a debt limit breach) has to end with Boehner (supposedly) selling out conservatives, and doing it with far more press coverage and attention than he would get from (again, supposedly) selling them out before a shutdown by cutting a deal. That’s a disaster for him — and, on the other side of the Capitol, for Mitch McConnell — and one he’ll work hard to avoid.

Between Obama being more likely to fight through a shutdown, and more Republicans in Congress who don’t remember 1995-1996, it’s certainly very possible that a shutdown is coming. Or even a debt limit breach. But it’s absolutely in Boehner’s interests to do all he can to avoid either. If either happens, it will be only because Boehner struggled but failed to avert such an outcome. 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.

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Greg Sargent | September 16, 2013