Why a Grand Bargain or Anything Else Won't End the Shutdown Soon

As Day 3 of the government closure dawns, nothing has made Democrats or Republicans rethink their strategies -- so neither side is budging.
House Speaker John Boehner leaves the White House after a meeting Wednesday night.

A confluence of events sent D.C.'s collective heart rate up early Wednesday evening. First, President Obama was meeting at the White House with Senate leaders Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell and House leaders John Boehner and Nancy Pelosi. And second, Robert Costa, National Review's Washington editor and scoop machine, reported Republican House leaders were all but certain to propose a "grand bargain" that would fund the government and raise the debt ceiling all at once. 

Here's a word of advice: Relax. For better or worse (probably worse), there's not much movement so far -- despite some noisy tussles over access to parks and National Institutes for Health funding on Wednesday.

To see why, take a look at Costa's piece. "Per sources, entitlement reforms, such as chained CPI, an elimination of the medical-device tax, and delays to parts of Obamacare are all on the table as trades for delaying aspects of sequestration and extending the debt limit," he writes. "What’s not being discussed: increased taxes or revenues."

What would Democrats get out of it? The government would reopen; the debt ceiling would be raised, averting national default; and some parts of the hated automatic spending cuts would be postponed, if not canceled. The last is something that might actually excite progressives, depending on the scale. But the other two are issues Obama and Reid have specifically and repeatedly sworn they will not under any circumstances negotiate over -- yet Boehner wants them to swallow a few more bitter pills than they would have under the proposals that preceded the shutdown, which they also refused. It looks like Republicans still think Obama is bluffing.

Then around 7 p.m., the White House meeting ended. Boehner emerged and told reporters that Obama again refused to negotiate. Then Reid -- who has coolly knifed Republicans at every chance he can this week -- came out and said, "What the speaker has to accept is yes for an answer" (whatever that means). Senator Mitch McConnell, a veteran dealmaker who's sitting this fight largely out as he fends off a primary challenge, said nothing. Not much progress, apparently.

The rest of the day had been taken up with sideshows over the effects of the closure. There's an ongoing battle over whether the National Park Service has unnecessarily closed certain sites -- especially the World War II Memorial in Washington -- for political reasons; that fight has drawn lots of grandstanding members of Congress to the National Mall, but hasn't yielded a clear partisan advantage.

Separately, there's a feud over a bill that would patch NIH funding; both sides, naturally, blame each other. Republicans want to pass small bills funding politically popular parts of the government, but Democrats are in no mood to give away their leverage and say government opening is not subject to negotiation. The NIH flap did manage to elicit a silly gaffe from Reid, who was asked if he would support funding to help kids sick with cancer and eventually replied, "Why would we want to do that?" Abby Ohlheiser correctly points out that, no, Harry Reid does not hate sick kids. And again: No clear partisan advantage on this one.

There is some evidence that GOP messaging is splintering. “This is not just about Obamacare anymore,” Representative Michael Grimm of New York told the Washington Examiner. Sounding desperate, Indiana Representative Marlin Stutzman added, “We’re not going to be disrespected. We have to get something out of this. And I don’t know what that even is.”

But it's a long way from changing messages to changing course, especially when Republicans are staking their machismo on not wavering. That's why the grand bargain isn't going anywhere, and why Boehner isn't hustling to drive a clean CR through the House, no matter what the Huffington Post might claim about how easy it would be for him to do it. Nothing has happened to shift the uneasy equilibrium that's reigned since the government closed at midnight Tuesday, and both Democrats and Republicans insist -- publicly, at least -- that their strategy is working. Until something changes that, the country can expect the stalemate to continue.

Presented by

David A. Graham is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, where he oversees the Politics Channel. He previously reported for Newsweek, The Wall Street Journal, and The National.

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