Democrat Shutdown Strategy

 /  Oct. 18, 2013, 7:30 a.m.


As the threat of the first-ever default on United States debt looms nearer by the day, the focus and strategy on both sides of the Congressional aisle have changed significantly. The latest Congressional impasse started out as a disagreement between the House of Representatives and the Senate over the place of the Affordable Care Act in the budget for this fiscal year. However, as the shutdown enters its second week, politicians are shifting their focus to the stalemate itself, and a temporary bill to reopen the government while negotiating on the budget has become the most prominent talking point for Democrats.

Last Monday, President Obama suggested that the House take a vote on a “clean” spending bill that would reopen the government without making changes to Obamacare funding, but Speaker of the House John Boehner dismissed the proposal, arguing that it wouldn’t pass.

In his October 7 press conference, Obama claimed, “There are enough Republican and Democratic votes in the House of Representatives right now to end this shutdown.” He also accused Boehner of refusing to call such a vote “because he doesn’t want to see the government shutdown end at the moment.”

The President hosted House Democrats at the White House last Tuesday, and invited the House Republican Conference to meet there last Thursday. However, Speaker Boehner announced that only a few key Republican leaders would attend that meeting.

President Obama has also stated that the first item on Congress’s agenda ought to be ending the shutdown. Implicit in his public statements, then, is the idea that individual Congressional voters don’t pose a threat to Democratic demands. The high-profile Republican leadership, in contrast, creates a much greater obstacle because of their request for concessions on deficit reduction before agreeing to end the shutdown.

It seems, though, that time has placed Congressional Republicans in a weaker position than ever in regards to budget negotiations. According to an October 7 poll released by ABC News and the Washington Post, Congressional Republicans carry a 70 percent disapproval rating, up from 63 percent the previous week. This is markedly higher than the 51 and 61 percent disapproval ratings for the President and for Congressional Democrats, respectively. The shutdown is working against Republicans at an increasingly high level. What does this mean for Democratic strategy in the coming days?

In his October 8 press conference, President Obama again called on Speaker Boehner to “stop the excuses” and to put the House to a vote to end the shutdown and raise the debt ceiling. Only after such immediate threats are resolved, Obama stated, would negotiations over fiscal reforms be possible.

It is worth noting that, early on in the shutdown, Speaker Boehner stated to a group of fellow GOP legislators that he would not allow the US to default on its debt. At the risk of losing his credibility as a leader, both in his party and in Congress as a whole, Boehner has given Republicans few options.

In addition, businesses such as Koch Industries that have traditionally backed Republicans are now distancing themselves from the party. With disapproval mounting, there is now more pressure than ever on Boehner’s party to concede to an interim increase in the debt ceiling. At this point, such a concession is looking more probable by the day; however, Democrats will likely need to pay for it by allowing for deficit-reduction talks during the temporary debt ceiling hike.

It seems clear what Republicans want out of the shutdown debates: a focus on broad budget changes, including the Obamacare reforms that brought the government to a shutdown in the first place. What, though, do Democrats want out of this mess? And how can they achieve it?

President Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid have already made it clear that ending the shutdown is a major Democratic goal. With rising public pressure on Republicans, Congress seems to be inching closer to that goal, however glacially. Assuming that Boehner remains true to his word and agrees to stave off a default, the shutdown should come to an end eventually. The end of the shutdown, however, won’t terminate Congressional clash over the budget. It will simply buy both parties time.

The interim shift in the focus of shutdown debate to broad “fiscal reforms” may allow the government to reopen, but it leaves unanswered larger questions on what exactly will be done about the budget (and, specifically, about Obamacare). Furthermore, a stopgap debt-ceiling hike will only remove some of the pressure on lawmakers. It will not take away from the fact that both sides must accept negotiations in the coming months.

Each of the dominant political parties has called on the other to sit down like adults and discuss the budget. Americans can hope that each side will take its own advice, but we can’t yet be certain as to how post-shutdown budget negotiations will play out.

The image featured in this article was taken by the Center for American Progress. The original image can be found here

Dana Scott


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