The Washington Post

After sequestration stalemate, things will only get worse


Sequestration is upon us. So what now?

A deadline to either fund the government or shut it down comes in three weeks. The next round of the debt-ceiling fight looms in late spring/early summer.

Chris Cillizza writes “The Fix,” a politics blog for the Washington Post. He also covers the White House. View Archive

Nothing that has happened over the past month should give the average American any reason to think that things won’t get worse before they get better, because they almost certainly will.

Take the talk of a government shutdown, which will happen unless Congress can agree on a funding measure by March 27.

Yes, both President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) pledged late last week not to let a shutdown happen. But, remember that the sequester was put in place with the absolute certainty among both Republicans and Democrats that it would never happen. Here’s Obama on the sequester during the final presidential debate last fall: “It will not happen.” So . . .

Now that we are living in a post-sequestration world, then, it’s right to be skeptical of pledges made by politicians about what won’t ever come to pass. And a parsing of the statements made by Boehner and Obama suggests that it may well be rhetoric removed from political reality.

“The House next week will act to extend the continuing resolution through the end of the fiscal year, September 30th,” Boehner said in an interview taped Friday for “Meet the Press.” “The president this morning agreed that we should not have any talk of a government shutdown. So I’m hopeful that the House and Senate will be able to work through this.”

That same day, Obama offered a “reassurance” on the shutdown. “I think it’s the right thing to do to make sure that we don’t have a government shutdown,” he said. “And that’s preventable.”

“Hopeful.” “Preventable.” Nice words. But words that lack any real meaning in the context of political dealmaking. The Fix is hopeful that we can dunk a basketball; we hope gaining weight after overeating is preventable. Neither word means anything will actually happen.

The reason for pessimism is simple: The parties are deeply divided over the right path forward when it comes to healing the economy and lowering the debt. Obama continues to advocate for a mixed package of tax increases and spending cuts. Republicans believe that Obama has already received his requested tax increases — in the “fiscal cliff” deal — and that the only thing that needs to be done now is to cut.

“It’s time for the president and Senate Democrats to get serious about the long-term spending problem that we have,” Boehner told “Meet the Press” host David Gregory.

And, it’s not just the leaders of the two parties who don’t see eye to eye. In a Gallup survey that asked an open-ended question of what one word people would use to describe the sequester, “bad” was the most mentioned term but “good” was the second-most mentioned. (Worth noting — 44 percent of the overall responses were negative while just 11 percent were positive; in the very depressing category, roughly one in five people had “no opinion.” Good times.)

Those genuine disagreements over policy are exacerbated by political realities that — surprise, surprise — the two sides view very differently.

“Boehner doesn’t have a governing majority and isn’t willing to take a bold stand that could cost him the speakership,” said Jen Crider, a longtime Democratic House operative. “[Senate Minority Leader Mitch] McConnell sees this as a way to win the majority.”

Neil Newhouse, who handled polling for Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign, insisted that when “the stated goal of the president is to overturn GOP control of Congress” and “the White House [is] scapegoating Republicans for the sequester,” the blame shouldn’t lie with his side.

Here’s what Crider and Newhouse do agree on: Partisan gridlock is the law of the land for the foreseeable future.

“It’s in­trac­table,” Crider said.

“You have a recipe for stalemate between Obama and Republicans that’s unlikely to be bridged anytime soon,” Newhouse added.

In short, if you think this is as bad as things can get, just wait awhile.

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