How the White House sees the shutdown (and debt ceiling!) fight

October 3, 2013

To the White House, the shutdown/debt ceiling fight is quite simple, and quite radical: Republicans are trying to create a new, deeply undemocratic pathway through which a minority party that lost the last election can enact an agenda that would never pass the normal legislative process. It's nothing less than an effort to use the threat of a financial crisis to nullify the results of the last election. And the White House isn't going to let it happen.

This part comes later. (Jewel Samad / AFP/Getty Images)
This part comes later. (Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images)

The Obama administration bristles at the idea that they've been unwilling to negotiate or compromise. They went on a widely covered "charm offensive" back in the spring. The president held multiple dinners with Senate Republicans. He invited over key House Republicans. The meetings were so frequent that the participants were nicknamed "the diner's club."

Nothing came of those meetings. Republicans still weren't willing to talk on taxes. And so the White House grimly accepted that they couldn't move the dial on spending. The CR, they note, funds the government at the GOP's number of $988 billion. It is, itself, a compromise, and one they don't like. But they made it, because they couldn't pass anything else through Congress. And then the Republicans decided to shut down the government because they couldn't pass a delay or defunding of Obamacare through Congress.

Center for American Progress.
Center for American Progress.

As the White House sees it, Speaker John Boehner has begun playing politics as game of Calvinball, in which Republicans invent new rules on the fly and then demand the media and the Democrats accept them as reality and find a way to work around them.

First there was the Hastert rule, which is not an actual rule, but which Boehner uses to say he simply can't bring anything to the floor that doesn't have the support of a majority of his members.

The shutdown, the White House argues, is now operating under a kind of super-Hastert rule in which a clean CR is supported by a majority of House Republicans but Boehner has given the tea partiers in his conference an effective veto over what he brings to the floor.

Then there's Boehner's demand for further concessions on the debt limit, which he now says he can't back down on, but which he made knowing that it would make it harder for him to back down.

The White House has decided that they can't govern effectively if the House Republicans can keep playing Calvinball. The rules and promises Boehner makes are not their problem, they've decided. They're not going to save him. And that also rules out unusual solutions like minting a platinum coin or declaring the debt limit unconstitutional. The White House doesn't want to break the law (and possibly spark a financial crisis) in order to save Boehner from breaking a promise he never should have made.

Top administration officials say that President Obama feels as strongly about this fight as he has about anything in his presidency. He believes that he will be handing his successor a fatally weakened office, and handing the American people an unacceptable risk of future financial crises, if he breaks, or even bends, in the face of Republican demands. And so the White House says that their position is simple, and it will not change: They will not negotiate over substantive policy issues until Republicans end the shutdown and raise the debt ceiling.

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Brad Plumer | October 3, 2013