Obama stays above fray, lets Hill Democrats fight GOP on shutdown

President Obama has been able to keep the partisan battle over a government shutdown at arm’s length, reaping the political benefits of a Senate majority that President Clinton didn’t have in 1995.
 
With a temporary measure to fund the government through March 4 set to expire, Republican and Democratic leaders on Capitol Hill have engaged in an intense back-and-forth over spending cuts and which party is trying to pave the way for a shuttered federal government.
 

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All the while, the White House has stayed somewhat above the fray, stressing that it does not believe a shutdown will occur but that contingency plans are in place, if necessary.
 
That approach stands in stark contrast to the run-up to the shutdowns that occurred during Clinton’s first term, when the 42nd president was the face of Democratic negotiations with Republican leaders, including then-Speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.) and then-Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole (Kan.).
 
This time around, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) have held a handful of press availabilities to go after Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and, more pointedly, House GOP freshman members. Schumer, who heads the messaging operation for the Senate Democrats, has suggested that the new conservative members want a government shutdown.
 
Obama, meanwhile, has vowed to veto the House GOP’s spending bill, which calls for $61 billion in cuts. But he and his administration have adopted a measured tone, and not issued ultimatums or attacked Boehner or the new Tea Party lawmakers.
 
The White House has kept to its talking points and refrained from generating much news on a possible shutdown. In fact, Obama has been attracting headlines on other issues, such as the Defense of Marriage Act and unrest in the Middle East and North Africa. While those are big issues, a government shutdown would likely be a defining moment for Obama’s presidency — as it was for Clinton’s.
 
Austan Goolsbee, the chairman of the White House Council of Economic Advisers, is the latest official to recite the administration line over the last two days, telling reporters both Wednesday and Thursday that he did not believe a shutdown was in the cards.
 
“The reason you haven’t seen the private sector getting worked up about it — I don’t think the evidence is the markets believe there’s going to be a shutdown,” Goolsbee said Thursday at a breakfast sponsored by The Christian Science Monitor. “You saw the leaders of both parties in both houses say — all four of them — they’re going to do what it takes, that they don’t think there’s going to be a shutdown.”
 
That message was delivered after the GOP-led House passed legislation this weekend that would cut $61 billion from 2010 spending levels for the rest of the fiscal year.
 
The House measure is widely thought to have little chance in the Senate.
 
With leaders in both chambers now agreeing that another short-term continuing resolution will be necessary, House Republicans this week floated a two-week measure that would cut $4 billion in spending. It was immediately panned by Senate Democrats, who have offered a month-long bill that would fund the government at current levels.
 
The political volleying between the chambers, done in public largely through teleconferences and press releases since both houses are in recess this week, illustrate how different the political dynamic is today than during the 1995 negotiations.
 
Fifteen years ago, with the Democrats controlling only one lever of power and Republicans in charge of both houses of Congress, GOP leaders engaged directly with the Clinton administration.
 
With a shutdown looming, the Clinton White House charged that the GOP was employing “a form of terrorism” by trying to force the president to sign objectionable short-term legislation, according to a review of news articles.
 
Gingrich said at the time that “we've done our part — we are passing the bills.”
 
And Boehner — then one of Gingrich's deputies – said: “The White House has been in fantasy land for months. At some point they need to stop gazing into their crystal ball and look to the Capitol and get into reality.”
 
The Clinton White House ultimately won that standoff, as Republicans backed down.
 
But Clinton used a lot of political capital, something Obama has not been forced to do — yet.
 
With lawmakers returning to Washington next week, the White House is expected to take a more public role in the discussions. It’s a tricky situation for Obama: If he engages in the negotiations and doesn’t succeed in averting a shutdown, he could be blamed for the impasse. On the other hand, not getting actively involved next week would surely attract criticism, perhaps from both sides of the aisle.
 
Late last year, with Congress seemingly gridlocked over the Bush tax cuts, the president struck a deal with Republicans that extended the current tax rates for two years, while also extending jobless benefits and creating a 2 percentage point decrease in the payroll tax for 2011.
 
Liberals were furious with Obama for agreeing to that tax accord, though it led to a significant bump in his poll numbers.
 
For now, Obama is content to let lawmakers snipe at each other, with a little more than a week before the March 4 shutdown deadline.
 
After reports surfaced on the House Republicans’ plan to craft a two-week spending measure that would cut $4 billion, a Reid spokesman summarily rejected the idea, calling it “nothing more than the same extreme package the House already handed the Senate, just with a different bow.”
 
The GOP counterpunch came soon thereafter. A spokesman for House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) circulated an e-mailed release noting that the Senate had not seen the Republican proposal, “making clear that Sen. Reid’s current position is that a government shutdown is preferable to cutting a single penny in spending.”
 
The White House has shown little interest in raising its rhetoric to those levels. Goolsbee said Thursday the president believes living “within our means” should not lead to cuts that will hurt areas like education and innovation.
 
And he asserted that the administration’s contingency plans for a shutdown — which have been compiled for decades under other presidents and were discussed earlier in the week by Jay Carney, the White House press secretary — were a “purely mechanical” initiative.
 
“It’s not a strategic political plan,” Goolsbee said.