The president and the House speaker couched their words Monday night in the language of compromise and reassurance. But at the start of a critical week of legislative maneuvering, each delivered a partisan message that cast blame on the other for a breakdown that threatens the nation’s credit rating, its financial markets and the fragile economy.
By the time they finished, it was clear why Republicans and Democrats are no closer to agreement.
White House officials saw President Obama’s prime-time speech Monday as an opportunity to frame the debate on plans offered by House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) and Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) to raise the federal debt ceiling, and to drive home to a larger audience the consequences of a failure to meet next Tuesday’s deadline and the importance of compromise.
From their vantage point, the president continues to hold the high ground in public opinion. Many more Americans support an agreement that includes spending cuts and some new taxes to one that cuts only spending. Monday’s speech was a way to reinforce that message and to bring new pressure on Congress to find a compromise.
Boehner, not wanting to give the president a free shot at the American people, quickly demanded time for a response and his own shot of describing the impasse. As he prepares to try to push his plan through the House and, he hopes, the Senate, he must continue to work toward avoiding default while reassuring his conservative base.
No one is quite certain how the next few days will play out, even though time is running short. For now, both Boehner and Reid will attempt to test their strength in their respective chambers. Boehner has seen some rebellion among his most conservative members, a sign of the hold the tea party movement continues to have on his party. That still is the biggest obstacle he must overcome.
But Boehner’s real test will come when Republicans try to corral Democrats for a vote in the Senate. The speaker expressed confidence Monday night that his plan was the only thing out there that could pass in both chambers, but that may be more boast than reality. Only when it is shown that neither Boehner’s nor Reid’s plan can get out of Congress can real negotiations for a compromise begin.
The dueling speeches probably did little to sway votes on Capitol Hill. Instead, the president and speaker used their respective platforms to try to shape public opinion and, in the president’s case, to use his bully pulpit to bring pressure on lawmakers to make the kind of deal he supports.
Obama, having been dealt out of the direct negotiations by Boehner, used his time to castigate Republicans for their obstinacy. He accused Republicans of blocking a balanced solution that would cut spending, raise taxes and reform entitlements, all in the name of shaving $4 trillion off projected deficits.
“The only reason this balanced approach isn’t on its way to becoming law right now is because a significant number of Republicans in Congress are insisting on a cuts-only approach,” he said.
For Americans disgusted by what they have seen from Washington over the past few weeks, Obama sought to put the onus on Republicans for the stalemate. “The American people may have voted for divided government,” he said, “but they didn’t vote for a dysfunctional government.”
Boehner was just as clear in casting the president as the obstacle. Obama, he said, came to office and led the country on a spending binge that included “a new health care bill that most Americans never asked for; a stimulus bill that’s more effective in producing material for late-night comedians than it was in producing jobs; and a national debt that has gotten so out of hand, it’s sparked a crisis without precedent in my lifetime or yours.”
He also accused Obama of standing in the way of an agreement. “Unfortunately the president would not take yes for an answer,” the speaker said. “Even when we felt we might be close to an agreement, the president’s demands changed. The president has often said we need a balanced approach, which in Washington means: ‘We spend more and you pay more.’ ”
And, Boehner said, Obama wants another blank check to continue what he has been doing. The speaker added, “That is just not going to happen.”
So one reality is that there is not yet a path to agreement, only more nail-biting days of test votes, strategy sessions, back-channel talks and public reassurances that default is not an option.
The other new reality is that the goal now is simply to avoid default. The president may talk of a grand bargain, but hopes for that expired over the weekend. It is now up to the two sides to find something short of that to prevent the kind of economic havoc that financial experts predict could begin soon after next Tuesday’s deadline.
Monday’s speeches by the president and the speaker may have achieved the political ends they and their advisers sought. But collectively, they did little to show a way out of the box they have created for the country.