President Obama (Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)
President Obama (Saul Loeb/Getty Images)

As the sad drama of Miriam Carey was unfolding on Pennsylvania Avenue, I was listening to a Republican member of Congress talk about the sad reality that has engulfed his majority on Capitol Hill. The government shutdown is a big mess for Speaker John Boehner and House Republicans. What moved the discussion from sad to scary is the lack of awareness that President Obama is done rewarding their bad behavior.

“I would liken this to a little bit like Gettysburg where, you know, a confederate unit went looking for shoes and stumbled into a Union cavalry and all of a sudden they found themselves embroiled in a battle on a battlefield they didn’t intend to be on and everybody just kept feeding troops into it. And that’s basically what’s happening now,” the Republican member said. “In a political sense, this isn’t exactly the fight, I think, the Republicans wanted to have, certainly the leadership wanted to have, but it’s a fight that’s here.”

Tangling with the president over his signature legislative and political achievement that was upheld by the Supreme Court and, by virtue of the 2012 presidential election, the American people was doomed to fail. The reality-based community understood that. But I could see how this GOPer could think that Obama would compromise. The president has done it before or, as the member described it, has  “a pattern of moving in the right direction.”

We had the April 2011 [budget] deal. We didn’t shut down the government, but we reduced the deficit. We had the debt ceiling deal in August of 2011. We didn’t default, but we reduced the deficit pretty substantially by $1.2 trillion over a decade. We had the fiscal cliff, which produced revenue, was bipartisan and reduced the deficit yet again. You had the [continuing resolution] in March, which was accepted by both sides and locked down the sequester cuts and that, again, reduced the deficit.

The Center for American Progress took on the compromise issue from the perspective of where things stand vis-a-vis the Senate-passed continuing resolution whose rejection by the House led to the current government shutdown.


(MSNBC via Center for American Progress)

The chart above illustrates the most important thing the Republican member of Congress said. The $986 billion continuing resolution from the Democratic-controlled Senate further locks in dreaded sequester cuts by coming within $19 billion of the 2014 Ryan budget. That is $214 billion less than the $1.2 trillion in discretionary spending for 2014 the president proposed, and it’s $80 billion less than the 2011 debt-limit compromise.

Each time Obama made these compromises — sometimes handing over concessions in good will — he was rewarded with brinksmanship down the road. After the unseemly display during the 2011 debt-ceiling debacle, the president vowed to never negotiate over the full faith and credit of the United States. The president is right to hold firm on this during the current fight. But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t want to talk about changes to Obamacare or anything else once danger to the national economy has passed.

“If they want to give me specific suggestions around how we can improve delivery of health insurance to people who need it, I’m happy to talk to him about it,” Obama told CNBC’s John Harwood. “But I’m not going to do it subject to the threat that somehow America defaults on its obligations.”

Of course, Obama’s firm position is seen as intransigent by Republicans who only hear half of what he says. “The irrational position here is ‘I’m not going to talk to you. You have to give in to me.’ That’s the president’s position,” the GOP member of Congress said. “And, again, particularly two years ago, that wasn’t the position he had. He’s changing the rules in the middle of the game. He would sit down and negotiate with people then.”

Yeah, that was then. As the president told Harwood, there is a different dynamic now and a larger principle at stake. “If we get in a habit where a few folks, an extremist wing of one party, whether it’s Democrat or Republican, are allowed to extort concessions based on a threat of undermining the full faith and credit of the United States, then any president who comes after me will find themselves unable to govern effectively,” he said. “And that is not something I’m going to allow to happen.”

“I would argue what the president’s doing now is a breathtaking assertion of presidential authority and expansion,” the Republican member said. “This is really, I think, almost irresponsible malpractice on the part of the executive branch.” No, the irresponsible malpractice is on the part of the House wing of the legislative branch. And here’s the truly breathtaking part: The House Republican leadership is desperately looking to a president it has disrespected for four years to rescue Republicans from a dangerous fight they never wanted. That they want him to lead them out of the political hole of their own making with the full faith and credit of the United States on the line is what’s irresponsible.

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Jonathan Capehart is a member of the Post editorial board and writes about politics and social issues for the PostPartisan blog.