President Obama had his own problem: He was trying to change his public image in midstream, from America’s top Democrat to a chief executive immune from partisan squabbling.
Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) had watched his party lose its momentum. For all his power, his job had shrunk to defending Democrats’ past gains.
Last week, their first big public fight since Republicans took over in November played out in 3 a.m. meetings, angry press conferences and tense sessions at the White House — which hit their boiling point late Thursday night when Vice President Joe Biden lost his temper at Boehner. It ended with a late-night handshake at the Capitol and Republican cheers in a crowded basement.
The detailed story of that week — relayed Saturday by aides invested in portraying their man as the hero — shows that all three were trying to camouflage weaknesses with bluffing and public confidence. They settled only in the face of a shutdown — the one thing they feared more than giving in.
In the end, Boehner got the huge budget cut conservatives wanted. Obama got to take credit for bringing the sides together. And Reid got a chance — in a dispute over funding for women’s health groups — to rally a beleaguered Democratic base.
Outside the White House and Capitol, their long staredown had a serious cost.
For days, a city had been creakily, and expensively, preparing to shut itself down. And a country had watched in amazement: Was the U.S. government really fighting over whether to reauthorize itself?
For Boehner, last week was a chance to prove his toughness, and conservative bona fides, to the fractious Republicans he leads.
His problem had been made clear a month ago. The House was set to vote on a stopgap budget to keep the country running, but 54 members of his caucus pressed the red button for “no.” The bill passed, but they sent Boehner a message: He didn’t have the unqualified support of all 241 House Republicans.
“If you don’t have 218, you’re not speaker,” one of Boehner’s close friends said, adding that they “cut his legs off.”
The roots of Boehner’s problem stretched back to last fall’s elections, which propelled him to power. On the campaign trail, Republicans promised that they would cut $100 billion from Obama’s budget proposal.
Now, there were 87 new freshmen in the Capitol, and many of them believed that would happen.
But it was a promise Boehner couldn’t keep. Democrats in the Senate rejected it out of hand.
As the last week began, Boehner was determined not to seem wobbly. In private meetings with Democrats, he repeated a mantra: “Nothing will be agreed to, until everything is agreed to.”