House Republicans appear determined to shut down the government. This weekend they produced a second doomed bill tying temporary funding for the government to a list of demands to undermine the Affordable Care Act. Some see a glimmer of hope in this recklessness. If public opinion turns sharply against Republicans, the thinking goes, they will be less likely to provoke an even worse crisis in the weeks ahead over raising the debt ceiling. Given the contempt for the public interest displayed thus far, it’s hard to be optimistic.
Regardless of how the shutdown politics evolve, if Republicans don’t retreat from their debt ceiling threats, President Barack Obama will be caught in a trap. He can negotiate with House Republicans, avoiding a default on U.S. debt but undermining the American system of constitutional government. Or he can refuse to negotiate, affirming democratic values but risking economic disaster.
Whether you see the president as hero or villain in this drama, his one clear goal should be to ensure that this crisis never happens again. If the president decides to negotiate, that should be his nonnegotiable demand.
It’s worth reviewing some history here. The 2012 presidential campaign was about the big themes, with Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney promising to repeal Obama’s Affordable Care Act on “Day One” of his administration. Romney also established a stark contrast with Obama on tax and spending issues. Obama’s inauguration -- after a victory by more than 5 million votes -- brought clarity, if not comity, to Washington.
Also in January, House Speaker John Boehner vowed to end the dysfunction that had marked the preceding Congress and return to “regular order” in the House, passing bills and working to enact them through normal legislative channels. By spring, however, Republicans were refusing to participate in a conference committee to negotiate on divergent House and Senate budget proposals. Congress has not passed a budget, and the House hasn’t passed a single appropriations bill.
It’s a point worth underscoring, because it was a harbinger of the present crisis: Republicans did not reject a compromise proposal. They rejected participating even in negotiations aimed at achieving a compromise.
A minority faction within the Republican caucus is dictating terms to party leaders, who in turn are attempting to dictate policy to the Senate, the executive branch and the nation.
In pursuit of their agenda, House Republicans last week drafted what may be the world’s longest ransom note. In return for raising the debt ceiling to cover government spending already authorized by Congress, they demanded a lengthy list of concessions, including a one-year delay of Obamacare (setting up the linkage of a subsequent “delay” to the next debt-ceiling expiration) and vast regulatory changes sought by coal and oil interests that had previously failed to win approval in Congress.
What to do? Obama says he will not negotiate over the debt ceiling and has vowed to “break this cycle.”
Obama’s first goal should be to take the weapon away from his opponents. If he can deliver reasonable, and for Boehner, face-saving, concessions (the delay of the Affordable Care Act isn’t one) in return for a permanent moratorium on debt-ceiling threats, the long-term benefit to his successors -- Republicans and Democrats alike -- is worth the immediate sacrifice.
This may not be possible. House leaders have ratcheted up their rhetoric and the expectations of their caucus to the point that many Tea Party Republicans appear convinced that they can reverse the implementation of a landmark law by minority fiat.
Still, the president has to try. He has thus far failed to educate or enlist the public, which remains largely confused about the nature of the debt ceiling, the consequences of default or the stark choices facing the nation’s elected leaders. While polls display only minimal support for Republican demands to scuttle the health-care law, confusion about the law is widespread, making for a shaky foundation from which to wage an epic political battle. If the president does nothing but give speeches between now and Oct. 17, the likely debt-ceiling D-Day, his time will be well spent.
Responsible Republicans also have a role to play. Senator John McCain of Arizona framed the crisis well last week. The Affordable Care Act, he said, was a “major issue” in the 2012 campaign and the subject of constant calls for repeal by Republicans. “Well, the people spoke,” McCain said. “I don’t like it -- it’s not something that I wanted the outcome to be. But I think all of us should respect the outcome of elections, which reflects the will of the people.”
To avert the impending economic crisis, and defuse the latent political crisis, the president must tap the same democratic instincts, traditions and norms that are under assault.
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