Thursday, October 10, 2013

House Republicans and the standoff that’s not

IF YOU run a pizzeria in Washington, D.C., tonight was probably very good for doing business with the folks on Capitol Hill.

The New York Times reported this afternoon that President Obama, at a meeting with House Republicans at the White House today, rejected a short-term plan from House Republicans to extend the debt ceiling by six weeks ... but without ending the government shutdown.

Oh, it wasn’t written in that straightforward a fashion. The thrust of the story was concealed in language of an anodyne event. The president wasn’t described as rejecting anything.

The Times reported: “In statements afterward that struck the most positive tone in weeks of acrimony, House Republicans described their hour-and-a-half-long meeting with Mr. Obama as “a useful and productive conversation,” while the White House described “a good meeting,” though “no specific determination was made” about the Republicans’ offer. Both agreed to continue talks through the night.”

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But look closer. What seems to be a pleasant stalemate, its description choked with upbeat adjectives, is realistically anything but. The bottom line is this: The president rejected the House Republicans’ offer, kicking to the curb their hope of releasing the hostage United States government separate from a deal to extend the nation’s borrowing authority beyond the deadline of Oct. 17.

With the nation’s business groups and corporate leaders exerting more pressure on House Republicans not to pursue brinkmanship on the debt ceiling, as public opinion polls turn more dramatically against the GOP’s gambit, and with everyday Americans beginning to endure the non-theoretical pain of the government shutdown, House Republicans left the White House meeting knowing they’d ultimately have to make a concession to those irresistible forces —  and by extension, to the president. Eager to save face and loathe to admit anything like a defeat, they couched today’s meeting in largely conciliatory terms. And the team in the White House, willing to be good sports, has acquiesced in what will prove to be a political fiction.

Consider the non-statement statement made by House Majority Leader Eric Cantor after the meet: “We had a very useful meeting; it was clarifying, I think, for both sides as to where we are ...” Now consider the statement after the meeting made by House Speaker John Boehner. Oh wait, that’s right — Boehner didn’t make a statement after the meeting. Left there walking past reporters without a mumblin’ word.

The House Republicans are playing for time; today they pretended for the cameras that a losing hand was a winner. Tonight, spinmeisters in the Republican House leadership will be up late working on the “clarifying” language, figuring out how to put a victorious rhetorical face on getting ready to give President Obama exactly what he asked for all along: a clean continuing resolution to resume running the government of the United States.

And that’s where the pizzas come in.

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OF ALL the various forces now aligning against the Republicans in Congress, there may be none harder to ignore, on a retail-politics basis, than the people in the country. They’re being heard more loudly, every day. The news for Republicans was bad enough already: According to a new Gallup poll, released on Wednesday, only 28 percent of Americans have a favorable view of the GOP, a drop of 10 percentage points in a month.

What a difference a day makes. On Thursday, a new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found that only 24 percent of Americans have a favorable view of Republicans, the worst showing for the GOP since that poll began in 1990.

A full 70 percent of Americans disapprove of the Republicans; 53 percent blame them for the government shutdown; and in a provocative finding, the survey determined that 47 percent would prefer to have Democrats in control of Congress.

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Of course the folks on Wall Street will be hard to ignore too. When Fidelity Investments, the nation’s biggest mutual fund manager, and JPMorgan Chase sell all of their short-term government debt loads two days apart, it has a way of concentrating the mind wonderfully.

All of this underscores the fact that’s more and more inescapable every day: As the talks of negotiations continue, the House Republicans — bound by constitutional responsibility, chastened by scathing opinion polls, chastised by their own donor class, and internally fractionated in what defines their own identity — have little, if not nothing, to negotiate.

It’s like they’re holding guns to their own heads and telling their adversaries, “Now we’ve got you right where we want you!”

What’s next? Expect more meetings between House Republicans and the White House. There’s talk that House Republican moderates are working on an agreement that would resolve the impasse quickly. Also, “Senate Democrats and Republicans are quietly talking about potential agreements,” a Democratic aide told The Huffington Post.

We’ll see if any of this resolves the standoff that’s becoming less of a standoff every day.

Image credits: John Boehner: J. Scott Applewhite/Associated Press. GOP-Democratic favorables graph: © 2013 Gallup. 

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