Government shutdown: Are things getting better – or worse?

A government shutdown typically ends after both sides have established strong positions, then work toward a solution. Instead, rhetoric over the current impasse is turning personal and vindictive.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP
House Speaker John Boehner (R) of Ohio arrives on Capitol Hill Monday. The GOP-controlled House and the Democratic-controlled Senate are at an impasse, neither side backing down, after House GOP conservatives linked the funding of government to the defunding of President Obama's health-care law.

The government shutdown is now entering its second week. Is the US political situation that produced it getting better – or worse?

Well, it’s better in the sense that both sides have had a week to look tough. House Speaker John Boehner has shown tea party conservatives that he’ll stick with them past the shutdown cliff, despite pressure to relent from establishment Republicans. President Obama has demonstrated to Democrats that he’ll fight hard to protect a health reform law that reflects the party’s longtime priorities.

It’s Negotiation 101: posture at the outset to establish your position. Then begin a search for solutions from a position of strength.

But that doesn’t seem to be happening in this case. Both sides are continuing to espouse positions the other says it can’t tolerate. Rhetoric is becoming personal and vindictive, and the fight seems to be escalating into a larger showdown that’s about the fighting as much as it is about policies.

So in that sense, things are getting worse. Right now there seems no obvious way out. It’s a classic prisoners’ dilemma, writes veteran Washington hand Stan Collender. While all the parties to the fight may benefit from working together, working together has become so difficult that the worst of all possible outcomes, a longer and more destructive shutdown, may be the result.

“I see the shutdown lasting at least another week ... and two or three more weeks after that are becoming increasingly likely. I’m also raising the likelihood of the debt ceiling not being raised by October 17 – the date Treasury says it will be needed – to 1 in 3 instead of my previous estimate of 1 in 4,” writes Mr. Collender, a senior executive at Qorvis Communications, on Monday on his “Capital Gains and Games” blog.

Here’s how the situation stands: On Sunday, Speaker Boehner reiterated that he won’t bring to the floor a clean government funding bill – one shorn of provisions defunding, delaying, or otherwise modifying "Obamacare." He said he won’t attempt to raise the debt ceiling without Democratic concessions, either.

“The fact is, this fight was going to come one way or another,” Boehner said on ABC News's “This Week."

Secretary of the Treasury Jack Lew, in Sunday show appearances, replied that House Republicans have created a “ridiculous choice” in which getting rid of the Affordable Care Act is the price of opening the government or avoiding a US debt default.

The GOP needs “to open the government," Secretary Lew said on “Fox News Sunday." "They need to fund our ability to pay our bills. And then we’re open to negotiation.”

The current Washington political situation is akin to the Civil War Battle of Gettysburg, in the view of a top House Republican quoted by right-leaning Washington Examiner political writer Byron York in a Sunday column.

At Gettysburg, a Confederate unit out looking for supplies stumbled into Union cavalry. Suddenly, they were caught in a fight they had not intended on terrain they had not picked.

“Everybody just kept feeding troops into it. That’s basically what’s happening now in a political sense. This isn’t exactly the fight I think Republicans wanted to have, certainly that the leadership wanted to have, but it’s the fight that’s here,” this member of Congress told Mr. York.

Does Boehner see any path out of this situation?

It’s possible he does, according to another well-connected conservative journalist, Robert Costa of the National Review.

Don’t read too much into the “fight-to-the-death posturing” of the most adamant Republican House members, Mr. Costa wrote in a Washington Post opinion column last week.

Look instead to the smaller clues of Boehner’s behind-the-scenes talks with House members about a grand package deal that would raise the debt ceiling in return for Democratic concessions on tax and entitlement reform.

Those talks are “evidence of how the impasse will probably end: with an eleventh-hour, smaller compromise that Boehner has been slowly but surely shepherding,” Costa wrote.

Of course, for that to be the case, the Obama administration would have to retreat from its current position that there can be no fiscal negotiations until the government is open and the debt ceiling raised.

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