President Obama and congressional Democratic leaders, in their ongoing showdown with Republicans, now have a goal beyond protecting the health-care law, reopening the government and preventing the first-ever default on the nation’s debt.
They are gambling that if they can hang together and remain tough to the end, they stand a chance to break a dangerous cycle that has taken hold in Washington — one of legislating through brinkmanship, which has brought the government and the financial system to the edge of disaster at least four times over the past three years.
“This not just about Barack Obama. This is about the next president, whoever and whatever party it might be,” Obama told Democratic senators at a White House meeting on Thursday, according to Senate majority whip Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.).
So far, the Democrats’ strategy of refusing to meet Republican demands — which is not without risk — appears to be working.
At least two well-regarded polls in the past week indicate that Republicans are bearing the brunt of the public backlash over the government shutdown. The party that controls the House is registering its lowest approval in the history of both the Gallup and Wall Street Journal-NBC News surveys. The political opportunity is not lost on Democrats, either. Even as public opinion turns increasingly negative against Washington, they are gambling that the GOP will bear the worst of the long-term damage.
Republicans note, however, that the final chapter has yet to be written.
“All parties need to be concerned,” said GOP pollster David Winston. “The one thing we do know is that people are paying very close attention.”
The Democrats’ strategy has been made easier by the fact that the GOP went into the shutdown with no prospect of succeeding in its demand to gut the Affordable Care Act and with no fallback plan.
In setting that as the condition for keeping the government open, Republicans crossed a line that many Democrats believed made this showdown different from previous eleventh-hour negotiations over spending bills and the debt ceiling. Those earlier cliffhangers centered largely on budget issues.
Obama “decided this was a new level of extremism and that the only way to stop it was to draw a line in the sand,” said a senior White House official, who agreed to speak about internal strategy deliberations on the condition of anonymity.
“What was happening on the Affordable Care Act was really extraordinary,” said Sen. Angus King of Maine, an independent who caucuses with the Democrats. “There was an underlying concern that if this sort of tactic is given in to, it will become the norm.”
As often as Republicans have taunted Obama with the gibe that he is “leading from behind,” the past few weeks suggest that is an effective political tactic when an opponent is marching toward a cliff.
But pulling it off has taken a degree of trust, coordination and discipline that Democrats have often lacked, historically and particularly in the more recent years of the Obama era. That unity has been the key to their success, particularly given the fractiousness that has hampered the GOP in its bargaining effort.
For Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), the past two weeks have been a high-wire test of their skills at holding their troops together through some potentially damaging votes. Each has also been keeping a wary eye on potential missteps in the other chamber and by the White House that could undercut Democratic lawmakers.
In many respects, their strategy is the product of what they learned in previous crises over the past few years.
Congressional Democrats have made no secret of their belief that Obama yielded too easily to Republicans in the debt-ceiling negotiations of 2011, which laid the groundwork for the automatic spending cuts, known as the sequester, that have constrained spending for many popular programs.
“They still complain we sold them out in 2011,” said a White House official who requested anonymity to speak freely about the internal dynamics of the impasse. “We were jonesing for a deal too badly.”
Many also contend he could have gotten a better deal in the “fiscal cliff” talks at the end of last year, which left sequestration in place and the threat of another debt-limit clash on the table.
For his part, Obama was concerned that Democratic senators would be unable to resist the impulse for freelancing and deal-cutting that is so much a part of the Senate culture, and he worried that those deals could weaken his hand and that of their House colleagues.
When the president met with House Democrats on Wednesday afternoon, he got a laugh by invoking Will Rogers’s famous line: “I am not a member of any organized political party. I am a Democrat.”
But Obama turned serious, telling the House members, “All of you have shown extraordinary unity.”
That was not a foregone conclusion when all of this began. Right up until the final days before the fiscal year ended Sept. 30, Obama and Democratic leaders believed that House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) would find a way to avert a government shutdown by passing a stopgap spending bill.
Boehner, they thought, had assured them as much over the summer. That was when Reid agreed, with the White House’s assent, to set spending levels in the short-term funding bill at sequestration levels, rather than the higher amount that liberals and many in the House were hoping to see.
“That’s not a settlement. That’s simply adopting the Republican position,” House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) said in an interview last month. “I don’t agree with the White House. I think the White House is making a mistake, and I’ve told them so.”
But with that deal in hand, Obama’s team and congressional Democratic leaders did not take that seriously the bellicose rhetoric that was coming out of the tea party faction of the GOP.
“It’s in their self-interest to solve this without a catastrophe, and they know it,” a White House official predicted confidently less than a week before the shutdown.
And given the damage that Washington had done to the economy by flirting with a default on government debt in 2011, “I thought after that, Boehner knew better than to go through this again,” Durbin said. “I was totally wrong.”
But should the worst happen, the White House and the Democratic leaders thought they saw encouraging signs that some of their more vulnerable members would not break ranks under pressure.
For instance, in mid-September, Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska) announced that he would buck a GOP effort to attach the Keystone XL oil pipeline to the debt-ceiling bill.
“I’ve supported Keystone, but we should have a clean debt-limit bill,” said Begich, who is expected to have a tough reelection race next year. “That’s been the traditional way, and it’s been very successful.”
At the same time, the Democrats’ message discipline needed some work. On Sept. 25, White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough was alarmed when Chuck Todd of NBC News tweeted, “Number 2 Senate Dem Dick Durbin hints they might send bill back to House that includes some sweeteners for GOP to try and dial bk showdown.”
Durbin had raised the prospect that the Senate might ultimately agree to a repeal of the health-care law’s unpopular medical-device tax, a move that 79 senators were on record as supporting. A White House official was dispatched to tell him it was too early for that kind of bargaining.
Similarly, when the White House broached the possibility of inviting over the four top congressional leaders for a meeting with Obama in the week before the shutdown, Reid objected, arguing that it was premature for the president to engage.
All of which left many Democrats on Capitol Hill anxious about where things were headed. Durbin recalled colleagues asking privately: “What is the end of this? What do [the Republicans] get?”
Reid’s answer was to remind his fellow senators of the larger stakes, Durbin said.
“This is a historic moment,” the majority leader said. “It is about the future of Congress, and future presidents, and how they deal with Congress.”
The biggest test of the Democrats’ unity came after the shutdown commenced, bringing a string of embarrassing headlines for Congress as a whole.
House Republicans began putting forward bills that would take off some of the pressure by reopening politically sensitive parts of the government.
Pelosi, whose skills at counting and marshaling votes are widely regarded as unparalleled in the modern era, had to make some careful calculations. Those votes, she knew, could come back to haunt House Democrats in negative ads next year.
So Pelosi acceded when members of the Congressional Black Caucus voted to restore funding for the District of Columbia. And she made no objection when some of the vulnerable Democrats on what she calls the “front line” voted in favor of restoring funding for veterans.
But her calculation was that the long-term damage to Republicans would be greater.
“They think we will fold because we care. They think we will fold because we are responsible,” Pelosi told House Democrats at a closed session, according to one person who was there.
Zachary A. Goldfarb and Scott Wilson contributed to this report.