OPINION: Obama is MIA on the budget

So now we know President Obama and the Tea Party have something in common — they both want a government shutdown. Obama has all but said so. A deal could still materialize to keep the government operating beyond next week, but if Obama really wanted one he would abandon the brinksmanship and go out and get one.

Weeks after Vice President Joe Biden was dispatched to Capitol Hill to lead negotiations on spending cuts for the rest of fiscal 2011, he has reportedly made some phone calls, but budgeters haven’t seen him since. White House Chief of Staff Bill Daley and Budget Director Jack Lew are negotiating with some representatives for the Republicans, and things aren’t going well.

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While Democrats have offered more than $30 billion in cuts, they are resisting GOP policy changes that would affect Planned Parenthood, the Environmental Protection Agency and the implementation of healthcare reform. Republicans, managing restive conservatives threatening to oppose a compromise, don’t even have one to sell, since Democrats have refused to put numbers to paper. With new transparency requirements allowing 72 hours for members to read bills before voting on them, any deal needs to be made public on Tuesday, April 5 — less than a week from now.

Recall the unprecedented legislative flurry of the lame-duck session of the 111th Congress in December, when President Obama — chastened by the midterm election shellacking — finally engaged and managed to score significant victories with the passage of the START treaty, a repeal of “Don’t ask, don’t tell” and a deal to extend the Bush tax cuts as well as extensions of unemployment benefits that became known as Stimulus II. Where is he this week? Not too busy with the “situation” in Libya to fly to New York City for a fundraiser, or make a speech on energy at Georgetown University on Wednesday. Averting a shutdown might be high on Obama’s list, but he must not want the American people to think so. 

As one GOP veteran noted, it is the president — not the Republicans controlling one chamber in Congress — in the driver’s seat. If Obama really wanted a budget agreement, “he would have rolled up his sleeves and invited Republican and Democratic House and Senate leaders and budget staff together with the vice president and appropriate administration staff to Camp David for a summit on the economy and debt ceiling and nobody would leave unless and until a deal was made,” said Bradley Blakeman, who served in the administrations of both President George H.W. Bush and President George W. Bush. What would House and Senate Republicans say to a budget negotiation with the president — no?

Despite the division in their ranks, and the remaining prospect of a shutdown, House GOP leaders have succeeded in making clear thus far they wanted to avoid one. They drafted the two temporary stopgap measures Congress passed to keep the government functioning. As some conservatives continue to advocate a shutdown, should a final compromise not come close to the $61 billion in cuts passed by the House, Republican leaders are looking to House Democrats to help pass a bill, a move that would come at a considerable political cost. 

On President Obama’s calendar is his attendance at a major Democratic National Committee fundraiser in Chicago on April 14 that is expected to coincide with an announcement of the start of his reelection campaign. Is April 8 on his calendar too? Will the president be telling Democrats at the fundraiser that he worked to keep the government running, or that a GOP held hostage by the Tea Party shut it down?

Stoddard is an associate editor of The Hill.