The American people have witnessed a dizzying series of legislative maneuvers along with political posturing of a high art over the past few weeks. The fact is that little of it has had anything to do with resolving substantive differences about the federal budget.
What the country is watching has become standard operating procedure in Congress. Deadlines near, frantic activity intensifies, demands increase, standoffs occur and then miraculously, or perhaps predictably, there is a resolution — usually a messy one.
But what do those resolutions amount to? They amount to little more than a framework that is supposed to lead to substantive negotiations about the fiscal issues that have divided President Obama and Republican lawmakers for years. Only in Washington would that be considered an accomplishment.
Official Washington is once again in that position, scrambling ahead of another deadline with the country on hold and the economy at risk. But think about what the two sides were talking about Tuesday. In its cleanest form, one piece would fund the government for a relatively short period of time — a matter of months. The second would give the government the power to keep borrowing money until early February.
But even that was proving more difficult than expected because of the inexplicable intervention of House Republican leaders, who disrupted bipartisan negotiations in the Senate that appeared to be headed toward an agreement by deciding to move their own measure — only to realize that they didn’t have enough votes to pass it.
By early evening, the House GOP appeared to be in chaos, as rank-and-file members were abandoning the leadership’s latest effort to attach additional provisions to a clean funding bill and a clean debt-ceiling extension.
This is no longer about real issues. It’s about one side determined to claim total victory and the other, which blundered into the fight, looking to find a way to save face. However it ends, the two sides would once again be left to resolve budget differences that long have escaped them.
This downward spiral began with the collapse of the debt-ceiling negotiations two years ago. When Obama and House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) were unable to produce the so-called grand bargain, the result was a compromise that set up a process that has been a failure by almost any measure.
That debt-ceiling agreement created a “super committee” whose job was to deal with the substantive differences on issues such as entitlement reform, spending and revenue. The super committee punted and allowed future spending levels to be set by automatic triggers — known as sequestration — that no one really wanted to take effect. Sequestration is now the law of the land and at the heart of what must be resolved — again.
The 2012 campaign interrupted the process of dealing with the country’s fiscal problems and, in the end, the campaign failed to settle differences between the two parties. Republicans and Democrats came out of that election just as divided as when they went into it, with Obama in the White House, Republicans still in control of the House and the two camps listening to different coalitions.
Some progress was made at the end of last year. Facing a critical deadline when George W. Bush-era tax cuts were set to expire, Congress and Obama agreed to leave most of those reductions in place while increasing taxes on the wealthiest Americans. That fulfilled an Obama campaign promise. But there was no agreement per se on what, if anything, to do about spending levels or entitlement programs.
The current standoff began when Republicans decided to attach one more effort to get rid of Obama’s health-care law to a short-term spending bill. Given the Democratic-controlled Senate and Obama in the White House, that was a no-win maneuver. But it escalated far beyond what most people expected.
Boehner allowed hard-liners in his conference to keep making demands that were equally unlikely to succeed. When cooler heads in the GOP conference did not prevail, the government shut down. The two sides have been stuck ever since, looking for a way out as Thursday’s debt-ceiling deadline nears.
Complicating everything is the fact that Republicans are badly split, warring as much with one another as with the Democrats. House GOP leaders have remained unified but at the cost of continuing to look for some concession — seemingly any concession — that they can wrest out of the president and Senate Democrats.
The lack of consistency in their demands has been stunning. Even some Republicans who are sympathetic to Boehner were alarmed by the House GOP’s decision to draw up another bill Tuesday.
The GOP is bearing the brunt of public dissatisfaction with the spectacle in Washington. Nearly three-quarters of Americans disapprove of the way congressional Republicans have handled themselves — and that includes about half of all Republicans who are unhappy with their party. If that doesn’t send a message, what will?
The outcome of this fight seems destined to produce another standoff in a matter of months. Will substantive agreement be a greater possibility then? Given the animosity and hostility of the past few weeks, it seems unlikely.
Obama and the Democrats believe they hold the high ground in this battle and see no reason to back down. That may get them through this stalemate politically, but at some point the president will be challenged to show that he is prepared to negotiate with Republicans over spending and entitlements — and risk the unhappiness of his party in Congress.
Obama and congressional Democrats do not want the next phase of sequestration to take effect in mid-January. They would like to negotiate some relief and believe that many Republicans in Congress prefer not to see the spending ceiling fall another notch. But what price are they prepared to pay for that?
Obama long has said he is willing to negotiate some changes to entitlements, which House and Senate Republicans also want. Whether he can sell such changes to congressional Democrats is another big question. In this round, he has mostly stood back and let Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) take charge. Will that be the case later this year?
At the same time, the White House and Democrats will insist on new revenue as part of any budget deal. But for Republicans, that could be a non-starter. They believe that Obama got his revenue during the “fiscal cliff” negotiations at the end of last year. Some say the president left revenue on the table that was his for the taking had he been a better negotiator.
That’s what lies ahead, if this round ever ends. Presumably it will end, and perhaps even before Thursday, when the Treasury will run out of borrowing authority and the country’s creditworthiness will be at risk.
But if these have been the preliminaries, they have done little to create optimism that the negotiations that are supposed to follow will be any less chaotic than they have been for the past few weeks. Nor does this round provide optimism that those discussions will be any more conclusive than they have been for the past three years.