Here’s one way to think of the budget negotiations: As a poker game being played by 536 players. That would be all the members of the House and Senate, and President Obama.
We can never be sure who is bluffing, what is Kabuki, or which public statements are spin. We can never be sure what constitutes people’s real positions or what constitutes real behind-the-scenes negotiations. Indeed, the players themselves cannot be sure of any of this.
The upshot: With the clock ticking until the April 8th deadline, it’s easy to imagine how all the ongoing brinkmanship could lead to disaster — even if everyone involved wants to cut a deal and avoid a prolonged stalemate.
Veteran budget wars observer Stan Collender reminds us, for example, that the recent apparent break over the proper depth of spending cuts between John Boehner and Eric Cantor could actually be a choreographed maneuver to give the GOP leadership a little more negotiating room without alienating some of the most conservative Members. Or, as he says, it could be a real break, and a prelude to a leadership challenge. We don’t know! And they’re not going to tell, at least not until long after the eventual deal is made.
What this means is that all the players will be groping forward in a world of extreme uncertainty, right up to the deadline — and then, if a shutdown starts, beyond — on top of how hard it already is to craft a deal that can win a majority in the House, 60 votes in the Senate, and the president’s signature. Speaker Boehner, for example, doesn’t just have to worry about what Harry Reid and Obama are up to and whether their various public statements are bluffs. He also has to make that calculation for members of his own Republican conference who are threatening to withhold their support for an eventual deal. Even worse, it’s not clear that leaders of the various blocks within the conference can safely be counted on to deliver votes. So Boehner can’t just go to Tea Party Caucus leader Michele Bachmann and ask her if the Tea Partyers are on board for a deal. He has to go to each individual Member.
All of whom could be bluffing.
Making things even more murky, many of the players in this game may not even know, in advance, whether they’re bluffing or not. Those Members who swore that they would never vote for another short-term deal may have meant it at the time. But that doesn’t guarantee that when push comes to shove they would spike a measure on the House (or Senate) floor that would get them blamed for a delay in veteran’s benefits and Social Security filings, not to mention for ruining some kid’s one chance to visit the Air and Space Museum. On the flip side, it’s possible that something assumed to be a bluff is really a hard position. After all, in 1995, even Bill Clinton’s staff were apparently unsure about whether Clinton would surrender to Republicans — up until they finally heard him draw a firm line in talks with Newt Gingrich and Bob Dole just before that year’s lengthy shutdown.
So, in addition to all the other reasons we’re probably heading for a shutdown, add uncertainty — and the mistakes and miscommunication that can easily happen when politicians have an incentive to conceal what they really think.