Who’ll blink first, Obama or Boehner?

Greg Nash


President Obama and Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) are showing no signs of caving in the fiscal fight gripping Washington, raising worries the standoff will bring the economy to its knees.

The White House has made clear it thinks it has the upper hand in the fight over opening the government and raising the $16.7 trillion debt ceiling, especially after Boehner’s comments — in public and to his conference —that he wants to avoid a default on the U.S. debt.

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Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) have yet to budge from their stance that budget negotiations be kept separate from measures opening the government and raising the debt ceiling.

Allies of the Speaker, however, insist that Obama has the highest personal stakes in the standstill, giving the president more motivation to cave.

The risk that neither side will blink first is apparent to partisans on both sides, with Treasury saying the debt limit needs to be raised by Oct. 17.

“I hope they have something else up their sleeve,” said Jamal Simmons, a Democratic strategist, of the White House strategy.

“I know they’re counting on John Boehner blinking, but no one knows where the exit ramp is,” he said. “I don’t think anybody knows where we are or where we’re going. It feels like we’re flying in uncharted territory.”

As the government shutdown enters its second week, both Democrats and Republicans have reason to believe the other side might stand down first.

Republicans say that they believe that Democrats’ tough rhetoric will soften as the debt-limit deadline — and the potential dent to Obama’s legacy — comes closer.

One GOP lawmaker noted to The Hill that people are far more likely to remember who the president is in times of crisis — as in the Great Depression or World War II — than the Speaker of the House.

“Obama cannot allow the nation to default because of the impact on our economy and his presidential legacy,” said Ron Bonjean, a GOP strategist who served as an aide to former Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.).  

“He will likely negotiate as long as Republicans would allow for short-term clean extensions of lifting the debt ceiling in order to get a brokered deal.”

Republicans also think they’re making some headway with their recent strategy of passing bills that open specific areas of the government, with dozens of House Democrats supporting at least one of those proposals. Obama and Senate Democrats have brushed aside those measures and called on the House GOP to reopen the entire government.

Democrats, for their part, believe Boehner is presiding over a divided conference that is losing the public opinion fight over the shutdown.

A Washington Post/ABC News poll released Monday found that 7 in 10 disapproved of the congressional GOP’s handling of the shutdown.

“They’re at the point where it’s just about checkmate,” one former senior administration official said of the House GOP.

“Their approval ratings are in the tank, they’re changing their message from healthcare to spending and they can’t seem to find a logical reason for why they would keep the government shut down,” the source said.

The GOP argument has shifted over the last week or so from seeking to roll back the president’s healthcare reform law in the fiscal showdown to seeking broader changes to the tax code and entitlement programs.

Even some Tea Party-backed lawmakers — who were sent to Washington in large part because of their opposition to ObamaCare — are willing to fight another day on the healthcare law. But others in the party — and highly influential conservative organizations — are warning not to back off the fight against the healthcare overhaul.

The White House believes its efforts to cast the GOP as the party of obstruction are working.

“That has completely stiffened the spine of President Obama and congressional Democrats,” the official said.

Democrats also believe that Obama has internalized the lessons from the 2011 debt-limit negotiations, in which even a last-second deal could not avert a historic downgrade of the country’s credit.

Obama lost political capital in that set of negotiations with Republicans, and is determined not to go down that path again.

Obama has openly said that he would be doing a disservice to those who follow him in the Oval Office if he were to continue to hold high-stakes negotiations that could threaten the country’s full faith and credit.

At the same time, some GOP lawmakers say that Republicans come under increasing pressure each day Washington doesn’t strike a deal.

All that led another former senior administration official to say that, while Obama will ultimately come out the winner in the standoff, an end is nowhere in sight.

“I think it’s getting worse,” the former official said. “These guys aren’t backing down. No one is backing down. I don’t think they see any reason to.”  

“Negotiations only work if there are two people at the table,” the former official said. “You can’t negotiate with someone who isn’t empowered to negotiate.”

Erik Wasson contributed.