The threat of a government shutdown deadline looming Friday carries high political stakes: It's not just a question of which party might be blamed for gridlock, but of which party can frame the budget debate in a way that carries public support.
Are deep spending cuts the path to a stronger economy and a sounder government? If the public sides with that view, then Republicans may come out as winners, whether or not a temporary shutdown occurs.
Are tea-party Republicans seeking to gut popular programs like Medicare in order to achieve their goal of smaller government? If the public comes down on this side, then Democrats may stand to win.
At this point, with just a few days to go before Congress's temporary funding for the federal government runs out, what's clearest is that the public would like to see a compromise and no shutdown. But in a high-stakes debate with implications for the future shape of government, neither major party wants to be perceived as simply caving in to the other.
In one new poll, the Pew Research Center found 39 percent of US adults would see Republicans as more to blame than the Obama administration if a shutdown occurs, up from 36 percent in late February. Some 36 percent say they would place more blame with the Obama administration, up from 35 percent in February.
To some extent, all this may feel like familiar political territory.
In 1995, a standoff between President Clinton and Republicans led by House Speaker Newt Gingrich brought federal operations to a partial halt. Back then, a public opinion poll taken just before the shutdown shows more Americans blaming Republicans (46 percent) than the president (27 percent). Clinton handily won reelection in 1996.
The economic backdrop today is different, however. Unemployment is a more severe problem, for one thing, and the government's fiscal outlook is weaker – with forecasts that annual interest payments on the national debt could soar toward $1 trillion over the next 10 years.
A central question is whether Republicans can play that to their advantage as the showdown continues.
Discussion but no deal
In a statement released after the meeting, Mr. Boehner's office said, "Republicans’ strong preference is that we ... pass a bipartisan agreement this week that resolves last year’s budget mess by making real spending cuts and keeps the entire government running through September."
Democrats such as Senate majority leader Harry Reid have sought to paint themselves as willing to make responsible spending cuts, while tea party Republicans hold such a deal hostage to their own whims.
"The last thing we need is a disruption that's caused by a government shutdown," Mr. Obama told reporters Tuesday.
What the public expects of him and Republicans, Obama said, is "that we act like grownups ... that everybody gives a little bit, compromises a little bit, in order to do the people's business."
Obama said Democrats had agreed to a Republican target – $32 billion in spending cuts – and that now Republicans are quibbling over whether the cuts are the right ones.
Americans: compromise, please
In recent polls Americans show a preference for compromise on spending. About 36 percent of US adults said politicians should "stand by their principles," even if that means a shutdown occurs, while 55 percent favored "compromise, even if that means they pass a budget you disagree with."
Similarly, in a March CBS News poll, 81 percent of Americans said politicians should compromise on spending, and 13 percent said they should stick to their positions.
A Monitor/TIPP Poll from March showed more support for each party entrenching itself: While 41 percent of respondents want Congress to avoid a shutdown at all costs, 28 percent would back Republicans in a shutdown and 23 percent would back Democrats.
Either party faces risks if it ends up looking unwilling to strike a deal.
On that score, Republicans may be more at risk. A March ABC News/Washington Post poll found 71 percent of Americans see the Republican Party as not willing to compromise enough in handling the budget deficit, while 52 percent see Obama as not willing to compromise enough.
Who politicians are listening to
Of course, politicians aren't just trying to please the general public with each decision they make. They have many goals, principles, and constituencies in mind – including the core base of supporters within their own parties.
Republicans are hammering a simple theme: Spending levels in Washington are unsustainable, and reductions will help revive American confidence and create jobs.
"We want the largest spending cuts that are possible," Boehner said Tuesday before heading into an afternoon bargaining session with Senator Reid. He accused Senate Democrats of offering spending cuts based on "smoke and mirrors."
The recent ABC News poll found that more Americans trust Obama than congressional Republicans when it comes to handling the economy and deficits. But Obama has slipped, with the percentage of Americans expressing trust in him on those issues below 50 percent since 2009.
Although the shutdown debate is just one skirmish in a larger fiscal-policy conflict, any resulting shift in public opinion could have wider implications – helping to set the table for future budget debates and for 2012 election strategies.
At the end of September, a new budget year begins. On Tuesday, Rep. Paul Ryan (R) of Wisconsin released a House Republican budget proposal for the next fiscal year, a plan that emphasizes spending cuts including an overhaul of Medicare.