Republicans noted the irony of Obama’s refusal to talk with them, just days after he engaged in negotiations in recent days with enemies of the United States, including the presidents of Iran and Russia.
Obama has argued that it was fundamentally unfair for House Republicans to use their control over government spending to try to force the defunding or modification of aspects of Obamacare, but that ignores the fact that Obamacare was first passed into law in 2010 using a similar power play when Democrats temporarily had full control of both houses of Congress.
When Obamacare was being drafted, the Republicans were denied the opportunity to provide any input by the White House and congressional Democrat leaders. As a result, it became the first major new entitlement program to be passed into law by Congress without any bipartisan support. It was a raw political power play by the Democrats despite vehement objections from grass roots voters. Thus, it is hypocritical for Obama and the Democrats to complain about House Republicans resorting to comparable strong-arm political tactics to attack Obamacare, which has become the leading symbol of everything about the Obama-led federal government that conservative Republicans have come to despise.
In the run-up to the October 1 government shutdown deadline, there were a lot of predictions that it would wind up becoming a political disaster for the Republicans, just as it was when then-Speaker Newt Gingrich triggered a similar budget confrontation with Bill Clinton, halting many government functions in late 1995 and early 1996.
But Gingrich, now a media political commentator, pointed out that the government shutdown is not as drastic as it sounds. During the Reagan era, it was a fairly common occurrence, but those shutdowns were generally very brief. They were not driven by the major Washington political confrontations we have witnessed since the start of Obama’s presidency.
SHUTDOWN HAS A LIMITED IMPACT
At least initially, such shutdowns do not have much of an impact on most Americans, because the shutdown would not impact entitlement payments, such as Social Security and Medicare, and emergency services, such as law enforcement, and the personnel needed to provide them, would continue uninterrupted. However it did result in the immediate furlough of about 800,000 non-essential government workers, and the shutdown of various federal services, ranging from national parks and museums to the IRS telephone taxpayer help line. Ironically, the rollout of Obamacare, including the startup of the state health insurance exchanges, proceeded on schedule, because they had already received congressional funding in advance.
As the Monday midnight deadline approached, both sides in the standoff stood firm. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid had Senate Democrats reject any spending bill calling for any changes in Obamacare. As the Senate voted to reject them, Boehner and House Republicans passed three different versions of the continuing resolution, with progressively smaller modifications of Obamacare. Instead of defunding it completely, as in the original House bill, they called for, first, a delay of one year, and then just the postponement of the individual mandate. They also called for the cancellation of a special subsidy enacted by presidential decree for members of Congress and their staff to help them pay for their health coverage under Obamacare.
BREAKDOWN IN COMMUNICATIONS
The underlying problem leading to the shutdown is a fundamental breakdown in both trust and basic communication between the president and congressional leaders, which goes back to the failure in 2011 of the effort by Boehner and Obama to secretly negotiate a “grand bargain ” on all government spending and debt. The two were near agreement when Obama leaked the deal to the media, embarrassing Boehner politically and forcing him to back out. There was a similar failure in the negotiating effort between Obama and Boehner in an effort to resolve the fiscal cliff at the end of 2012. Once again, Boehner blamed Obama for sabotaging a deal that was nearly in hand.
Therefore their relationship was badly damaged even before the government shutdown crisis began.
There had been some hope that Speaker Boehner would be able to persuade a sufficient number of House Republicans to vote for a spending bill without an Obamacare component before the Monday midnight deadline to allow the shutdown to be avoided. That would have allowed the Republicans to prepare for much more important negotiations upcoming later in October over raising the $16.7 trillion federal debt limit.
Nobody could predict how long the standoff will last. If the government shutdown stretches into the weekend, the dispute could be rolled into the more serious battle over the debt limit. The Treasury Department says it will begin running short of cash to pay the nation’s bills as soon as October 17 unless Congress approves additional borrowing authority. With so little time remaining to avoid a default on the nation’s financial obligations, the negotiations to pass the continuing resolution to fund the government could be merged into the debt-limit talks.
OBAMA AND REPUBLICANS ON A COLLISION COURSE
By insisting that Republicans accede to their demands for a “clean” continuing resolution, President Obama and Senator Reid made it clear that they wanted to provoke the shutdown in order to pin the blame for it on the Republicans. Their actions made a peaceful resolution of the dispute impossible.
Several hours before the deadline, President Obama called the leaders of the House and Senate, but instead of taking the initiative to broker a compromise to avoid the shutdown, Obama dug in. During a ten minute phone call, the first time that Obama and Boehner had spoken in a week, the president again declared that he would not negotiate with the Republicans. A short time later, Boehner took to the floor of the House to report on the conversation, and to explain that House Republicans had scaled back their demands to give the American working families the same exemptions from Obamacare requirements that the administration had already given big business by delaying the mandate on employers to provide insurance for their workers. The Republicans were calling for a one year delay in the individual mandate, so that taxpayers would not be forced “to buy insurance that they can’t afford.” The Republicans were also calling for the cancellation of special subsidies granted by the administration to members of Congress and their staff to help pay for their health insurance on the Obamacare exchanges, for which ordinary taxpayers would not be eligible.
BOEHNER ARGUES FOR FAIRNESS
Boehner argued for both measures which the Republicans had added to the spending bill. “I would say to the president: This is not about me. It’s not about Republicans here in Congress. It’s about fairness.”
The speech drew applause for the embattled Speaker, who argued passionately that Republicans were merely seeking “fairness” for working people. Obama has delayed the health plan’s mandate for employers to insure workers and delayed other requirements it imposed on big unions, Boehner said. “Yet they stick our constituents with a bill they don’t like and a bill they can’t afford,” he said.
Boehner said that if Democrats would agree to those measures, which some had privately said they supported, the shutdown could be avoided. The Speaker closed by saying, “let’s listen to our constituents and let’s treat them the way that we would want to be treated.” But his plea was ignored. At the eleventh hour, Obama and Reid refused to even discuss the issue with Republicans, because they expected to reap a political gain from the needless disruption of government operations.
LESSONS FROM THE SEQUESTER
Many commentators predicted political trouble for the Republicans because of the expected backlash from the voters to the inconveniences imposed by the government shutdown. But Republican leaders point to an opposite experience earlier this year when the expected angry public reaction to the federal spending cuts imposed by the sequester agreement failed to materialize.
Obama and the Democrats had fully expected to pin the responsibility for inconveniences caused by the sequester cuts on the Republicans. As a result, the administration went out of its way to make the cuts much more painful than they had to be. Ultimately, the public recognized this, causing the sequester to backfire on the Obama White House, which had first proposed it as a last resort during the 2011 debt ceiling fight.
It soon became clear to the public that dire predictions about the consequences of the cuts had been exaggerated. It also became evident that the required spending cuts in social welfare programs were far more painful to liberal Democrats than the cuts in the defense budget were to the Republicans, who better appreciated the necessity for them.
As a result, the political tables have been turned on the sequester. It is now seen by Republicans as one of the few real victories in their drive to cut federal spending, while Democrats view its required spending cuts as a growing threat to the growth of their cherished federal social welfare programs.
AN ORDERLY SHUTDOWN
Shortly before midnight Monday, the White House budget office issued a memo instructing agencies to “execute plans for an orderly shutdown due to the absence of appropriations.”
The failure to pass the spending measure led to the furlough of 800,000 federal workers on Tuesday. National parks, monuments and museums, as well as most federal offices, were closed. Tens of thousands of air-traffic controllers, prison guards and Border Patrol agents were required to serve without pay.
In a last-minute move to protect active-duty troops from having their pay delayed, Congress and Obama agreed Monday to have the government keep issuing military paychecks, instead of giving the soldiers pay vouchers that could not be redeemed until after the shutdown ended. But Obama warned that the broader economy, which is finally starting to recover from the financial shocks of the past six years, would take a substantial hit if the congressional gridlock shutters “America’s largest employer.”
“Keeping the people’s government open is not a concession to me. Keeping vital services running and hundreds of thousands of Americans on the job is not something you ‘give’ to the other side. It’s our basic responsibility,” Obama said in a statement at the White House just a few hours before the shutdown.
In addition to the underlying ideological disagreements between the two sides, there were strong personal political motives driving the confrontation which led to the shutdown. The political leader who found himself in the most difficult personal position was Boehner. Since the Tea Party-driven victory in the 2010 midterm election gave him nominal control of the House, Boehner has been working hard to hold together his diverse GOP conference made up of Tea Party supported and ideologically driven newcomers and a majority of more mainstream conservative Republican congressmen, who tend to be more pragmatic and willing to accept political compromises.
While Boehner has long been a leader of the Washington political establishment, upon becoming Speaker, in the wake of the 2010 midterm election, he promised the incoming class of Tea Party Republican freshmen that he would respect their priorities and work with them, and he has worked hard since then to maintain the sometimes fragile coalition between GOP establishment types and Tea Party advocates together, even though it has sometimes made it much more difficult for him to assemble the necessary support to pass legislative compromises that can win passage by the Senate and become law.
Boehner has done this because he realizes that the Tea Party segment of the GOP has produced many of the party’s new leaders, and understands that it is his responsibility as Speaker to work with them and harness their enthusiasm to rebuild the national party.
This is why Boehner agreed to the demands of the Tea Party advocates in the House to attach the Obama defunding measures to the continuing resolution, even though Boehner would probably have preferred to expend that effort and political capital on the upcoming fight over the raising of the debt ceiling.
Even some of Boehner’s Democrat political opponents have publicly expressed their sympathy for his position. Since becoming Speaker, Boehner has suffered a number of setbacks, such as the failed attempts to reach deals with Obama in the 2011 debt ceiling and on the fiscal cliff at the end of 2012. Yet Boehner has managed to hold his divided Republican caucus in the House together, and largely retained the respect and support of its members.
However, Boehner’s personal relationship with Obama has gone from bad to worse, and as indicated by their harsh telephone exchange a few hours before the Monday night shutdown, there is little or no trust or confidence left between them.
AN ISOLATED PRESIDENT
Unfortunately, Boehner is not the only veteran Washington political leader who has little or no political relationship with the president. Several veteran White House observers have called Obama the most isolated US president since Richard Nixon.
It is also not difficult to understand why Obama has chosen to fight this battle, rejecting any move by Republicans to use the need to pass a continuing resolution to force changes in Obamacare. It is, after all, Obama’s most impressive achievement as president, and his political legacy is likely to be determined by whether it is ultimately judged to be a success or failure. In addition, Obama has had few other successes to point to since the start of his second term. After winning re-election by a comfortable margin, he has not been able to get any of his major legislative priorities passed by Congress, and has been implementing new policies almost exclusively by issuing executive orders rather than submitting legislation.
His second term has also been dogged by a series of scandals, embarrassing revelations and unforced errors, the latest of which was his indecisive response to Syria’s use of chemical weapons. His long political losing streak has badly damaged his popularity with the American public. He badly needs to chalk up a clear political victory to restore some of his lost prestige and his job approval ratings if he hopes to accomplish much during his next 3 years in the White House.
Democrat party leaders in the House and Senate are following Obama’s lead. As long as Boehner continues to hold the Republicans together as a blocking force in the House, the Democrats have no other choice. They have to continue working with Obama to try to get more of their goals accomplished.
Democrats also defend Obama’s refusal to negotiate with the Republicans over the shutdown, arguing that to do so would lead to further GOP demands in return for raising the debt ceiling.. Senator Charles Schumer of New York said, “The bottom line is very simple. You negotiate on this, they will up the ante for the debt limit.”
ULTIMATELY IT IS THE PRESIDENT’S RESPONSIBILITY
But presidential biographer Bob Woodward insists that in the end, it’s still the president’s responsibility to make the government work. While expressing appreciation for Obama’s position that he will not allow himself to be blackmailed over the debt ceiling, Woodward said, “the American economy is at stake and if there is a downturn or a collapse. . . it’s going to be on his head. The history books are going to say we had an economic calamity in the Presidency of Barack Obama. Speaker Boehner, indeed, is playing a role on this. . . but in the history book it’s on the president’s head. He’s got to lead. He’s got to talk. And the absence of discussion here, I think, is [a] baffling element.”
The third major figure in the standoff which led to the shutdown is an outsider, freshman Texas Senator Ted Cruz, who has functioned as the self-appointed spokesman for the Tea Party activists who want the party to do everything it can to attack Obamacare, even if it will ultimately have to pay a political price for doing so.
Cruz’s outspoken public calls to action, directed at House Republicans, demanding that they use the funding bill to attack Obamacare, have boosted his popular within the Tea Party community.
Cruz drew the most attention with a dramatic 21-hour filibuster-type speech on the Senate floor last week, with the help of Senator Mike Lee. It delayed the Senate vote on the first version of the continuing resolution, and attracted national headlines.
Cruz’s calls were so effective that some criticized him for undermining Boehner’s authority as the leader of Republicans. Many believe that Cruz will benefit politically whether the House Republicans manage to achieve meaningful changes in Obamacare or not. It has already enhanced his standing as an unannounced GOP presidential candidate for 2016.
Meanwhile, there has been some pushback against shutting down the government over Obamacare from elected Republicans who believe that it will damage public support for the party, especially among the independent voters needed to win presidential elections. Some of them have publicly urged Boehner to seek the help of House Democrats to pass the “clean” funding bill that Obama and Reid have been pushing so that the government can re-open.
Senator John McCain, the 2008 GOP presidential nominee, said that by using a government shutdown to push for the repeal of Obamacare “defies what the popular will is,” and noted that if the voters really “wanted to repeal Obamacare, the 2012 election would have been probably significantly different.”
Republican governors Chris Christie of New Jersey, and Rick Snyder of Michigan, and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney have all publicly opposed the House Republican strategy on this issue, but most other Republican governors have declined to comment.
HOW MUCH WILL THE SHUTDOWN COST?
While a brief government shutdown for just a few days would have a minimal impact on the nation’s economy, a more prolonged shutdown would have economic ripple effects far beyond Washington. According to a wide range of economists it would upset financial markets, raise the unemployment rate and further slow already tepid growth, by as much as 1.4 percent for the fourth quarter of 2013.
“It’s corrosive on the economy,” said Mark Zandi, chief economist of Moody’s Analytics. A lengthy shutdown followed by a default would be “the nightmare of the recession all over again.”
But instead of agreeing to sit down and negotiate with House Republicans to end the shutdown, as they have offered to do, Obama and Democrat leaders were still demanding their capitulation.
Therefore, as of Tuesday, much of the federal government was shut down, and as this issue goes to press, there is no way of telling how long it will remain closed.
The Washington Post contributed to this story.