This Ain’t The ’90s: Shutdown Negotiation A Dead Zone For Obama

Republicans are insisting that President Barack Obama abandon his refusal to negotiate a way out of the impasse over the ongoing government shutdown and upcoming debt limit fight. The problem for the White House is that unlike Bill Clinton during the 1990s shutdown, Obama has no one to negotiate with.

It won’t be Speaker John Boehner (R-OH). Early this year, in an ostensible show of toughness, he promised his members he won’t negotiate one-on-one with Obama again, and will instead let the House work its will — that is, let his conservative members call the shots. He has held to that position.

And even if the Speaker does agree to negotiate, and eventually cuts a deal, the White House has no faith in him to deliver enough Republican votes. They’ve doubted him since his members thwarted the $4 trillion deficit reduction deal he tried to reach with Obama in 2011. A running joke in the White House is that Boehner couldn’t deliver a pizza.

“The biggest difference is that there is no one to negotiate with. Newt Gingrich actually controlled the House, and when he decided that the cost was too high, he came to us and was ready to cut the deal, and his troops followed,” Mike Lux, a progressive strategist and former Clinton White House aide during the shutdowns in 1995 and 1996, told TPM. “Boehner controls nothing, is weak and utterly incapable of negotiating a deal that would stick. When you have no one to negotiate with, it is a lot harder to cut a deal.”

It won’t be Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, either. Despite his success at cutting last-minute deals to avert disaster in recent years, the Kentucky Republican is up for re-election and is fending off conservative challenger Matt Bevin, who has been looking for any opportunity to portray him as a squish. McConnell has worked to adhere to the right’s hard line positions all year.

“One real difference between what happened in ’95-’96 and the current situation is that the president right now has no one to negotiate with,” said Jim Manley, a longtime former Senate aide to Harry Reid and Ted Kennedy. “The Speaker clearly doesn’t have control over his own caucus and Senator McConnell is all but MIA from the Senate these days, not wanting to do anything that’ll get him in the crosshairs of the tea party.”

President Barack Obama met with the top four congressional leaders Wednesday evening for over an hour. He “made clear to the Leaders that he is not going to negotiate over the need for Congress to act to reopen the government or to raise the debt limit to pay the bills Congress has already incurred,” the White House said in a statement.

Part of the reason things are different now is Boehner’s members are arguably even less amenable to compromise than Gingrich’s members were in the 1990s. But it means Boehner is effectively asking Democrats to negotiate with themselves on how much they’ll give up to keep the government open and avert a debt default.

“Boehner’s goal is to proceed in regular order: the House passes a bill, the Senate passes a bill, we resolve the differences and it goes to the White House for President Obama’s signature,” said his spokesman Michael Steel. “Boehner and the President aren’t going to negotiate one-on-one. BUT we can’t get the ball rolling until the President (and Reid) abandon their ‘hell no’ stance on anything but a clean debt limit.”

Rep. Devin Nunes (R-CA), who despite his grievances has been loyal to Boehner during the shutdown debacle, said “I don’t think he’s going to put himself back in that position” of negotiating privately with Obama, given the distrust it created early in his speakership.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) has enforced a steely Democratic resolve against caving to the GOP in these fiscal fights, insisting that Republicans must learn that hostage-taking won’t work. Reid led his party toward a tougher line after the debate of summer 2011 embarrassed Democrats and brought the country within 48 hours of breaching the debt limit.

“The last thing Democrats need to be doing is negotiating and compromising with themselves. That’s just not going to happen,” Manley said. “It’s happened in the past but it’s just not going to happen this time around.”

Many government services have closed down and the country is barreling toward potentially the first default on its debt, which carries catastrophic implications for the U.S. and global economies. And there are no negotiations happening to avoid it. Even if Republicans did want to reach an agreement, Lux said, “without a leader who can cut a decisive deal it will be a lot more painful and messy for them.”

The country, too.

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