Why won't Obama talk with Speaker Boehner?

President Obama says he will negotiate 'only after the threat of a government shutdown and default have been removed.' The opening move by GOP hard-liners to defund Obamacare polarized negotiations.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP
House Speaker John Boehner (R) of Ohio pauses during a news conference on Capitol Hill on Tuesday.

Why won’t President Obama just sit down with Republicans and discuss their fiscal differences? That’s what Speaker of the House John Boehner and the rest of his GOP leadership team asked Tuesday at a morning press conference. Clearly, this was the theme they had agreed to make the central point of their appearance. All avoided answering questions about particular issues or possible procedural moves to return to the question of talking.

“Are we going to sit down and have a conversation, or aren’t we?” said Speaker Boehner.

Throughout the crisis over the government shutdown and impending debt ceiling problem, Mr. Obama’s answer to this question has been “no." Neither he nor Senate majority leader Harry Reid (D) have shown any interest in a back-and-forth over Republican demands that he defund or scale back "Obamacare" as the price of funding the government or raising the debt ceiling.

Following Boehner’s press conference, Obama called him to reiterate that there will be no talks in the current environment.

“The President is willing to negotiate with Republicans – after the threat of government shutdown and default have been removed – over policies that Republicans think would strengthen the country,” said a readout of the call, released by the White House.

This refusal to engage has taken Republicans by surprise, apparently. An anonymous member of the House leadership told the Washington Examiner’s Byron York that he thought Democrats would respond with some sort of concession on the Affordable Care Act, such as agreement to repeal its medical device tax.

“Instead, it’s no, we’re not going to negotiate, we’re not going to negotiate, we’re not going to negotiate,” this lawmaker told Mr. York. “Which means effectively you’re going to try to humiliate the Speaker in front of his conference. And how effective a negotiating partner do you think he’ll be then? You’re putting the guy in a position where he’s got nothing to lose, because you’re not giving him anything to win.”

Democrats in general have a two-part answer to the question of why the White House hasn’t engaged with the GOP, as it has in the past.

First, the maximalist nature of the House Republican opening position polarized the situation, in this view. Boehner bowed to the wishes of the tea party wing of his caucus and included a provision defunding Obamacare in a bill to fund the government. Obama will never sign a bill that undermines his signature legislative achievement, yet he’s heard Sen. Ted Cruz (R) of Texas and other hard-liners describe that as a nonnegotiable demand of their own.

Second, Democrats say they don’t want to legitimize the weapons of political warfare chosen by the House GOP. Democratic leaders say Republicans have taken hostages – high-priority continuing resolution and debt ceiling bills – in an attempt to push unrelated policy demands. 

Democrats might have agreed to strike the medical device tax from Obamacare if that had been the GOP’s opening position, writes left-leaning blogger Kevin Drum at Mother Jones. But it wasn’t (see “maximalist," above).

The liberals’ nightmare is that if they give in this time, the process will repeat itself over and over again.

“There simply won’t be any end to the hostage taking,” writes Mr. Drum. “As their price for not blowing up the country, there will be an unending succession of short-term CRs and short-term debt limit extensions used as leverage for picking apart Obamacare – and everything else Democrats care about – piece by piece.”

Is there a way to thread the needle here? Perhaps, if Republicans will agree to talk about budget and tax issues in discussions that are at least ostensibly decoupled from the shutdown and debt limit.

In the end, the president will have to deal with House Republicans in some way, writes veteran Washington reporter Ron Fournier. Voters want to see it. GOP control of the House gives them power with which Democrats will have to deal in some manner.

Obama’s “position against negotiating with Republicans is politically unsustainable,” writes Mr. Fournier in the National Journal.

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