There is great disagreement in Washington over the meaning of last year’s midterm elections, but it’s almost certain that most Americans did not vote for the kind of paralysis that surrounds the negotiations over the terms of raising the debt ceiling.
Americans voted for, or got, divided government because the public doesn’t fully trust either party with the reins of power. That means the only way out of this problem is through compromise, or what one administration official called “bipartisanship by necessity,” not by choice.
Up until now, enough lawmakers haven’t been ready to accept that in order for a deal to be struck. So the clock ticks.
The nation’s leaders tried again Saturday to return to regular order after an extraordinary spectacle Friday night, when negotiations over debt and deficits gave way to acrimony and recriminations between President Obama and House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio). They have little time to repair the damage.
Friday’s dueling news conferences between Obama and Boehner were compelling as political theater. They were more revealing for what they said about why the talks have gone from impasse to near-agreement to collapse more than once over a period of weeks.
The president and congressional leaders of both parties are trying to resolve historic differences over taxes and entitlements. No one should have thought it would be easy.
Republican opposition to tax increases is an article of faith for the party, but many GOP lawmakers, particularly the freshman who came in with the support of the tea party movement, are more rigidly opposed than ever. Similarly, many Democrats, who have won elections attacking Republicans over Social Security and Medicare, remain strongly opposed to cuts in those programs.
Arguments over taxes and entitlements have animated budget fights going back decades. In most cases, through compromise, the two sides resolved their differences, at least for a time. That happened in the 1980s and the 1990s. But now, in a period of partisanship as intense as it has been in many years, the efforts to resolve the current impasse have stretched the system to the limit.
The latest breakdown in negotiations put the country on a collision course with economic chaos, which could begin soon after the Aug. 2 deadline, which is when the Treasury Department says the government will no longer have the authority to borrow money.
Negotiators have just days to show progress, with the onus on the speaker to show that he can cajole his colleagues into accepting a plan that can pass the Senate.
Both sides know it and Obama and Boehner said again that they are determined to avoid default. They met in the White House Cabinet Room on Saturday morning, along with Vice President Biden and the other top leaders in Congress from both parties. The meeting lasted less than an hour.