For the past few weeks, Democrats from the president on down decried Republican tactics on a potential government shutdown as political hostage-taking on a par with "extortion." So, of course, now that the Republicans are on the run, the Democrats are doing the exact same thing in reverse.
They're saying they want to undo major part of the sequester budget cuts as part of a deal to end the government shutdown and raise the debt limit. It's as though Senate majority leader Harry Reid (D) of Nevada has finally sensed his moment to destroy that product of tea party Republicanism once and for all. One might not even be surprised if "Ride of the Valkyries" was booming from his Senate office this morning.
That is how dramatically the story in Washington has flipped during the two weeks since the government shutdown.
On Oct. 1, the Republicans were on the offensive – or at least thought they were. Sen. Ted Cruz (R) of Texas was at the front of the column, and the cry coming from his ranks was that they would stop at nothing to gut President Obama's signature achievement, the Affordable Care Act.
A government shutdown? A hit to the credit rating of the United States if Congress refused to raise the debt ceiling? Either was preferable to a new government entitlement that they said would erode American liberties and drive the country further into a potentially fatal debt crisis.
Inevitably, they failed, because they had nowhere near the numbers in Congress to win, and – despite their rhetoric – only a minority of Americans wanted to repeal Obamacare. Americans had already decided that question in the 2012 elections, and Republicans' failure to accept that rebuke meant they would receive it again this month. The Democrats, who knew all this, had not the slightest intention of yielding.
But now, members of the Republican establishment have abandoned their tea party insurgents for a more moderate position: They've offered to end the government shutdown and raise the debt ceiling – both only temporarily – so that Congress can discuss reforming Social Security and Medicare.
Democrats, surely would wish for more. A temporary reprieve still holds a hint of "extortion" and still keeps Washington bumping from one fiscal crisis to the next. But, these days, such is the stuff of which compromises are made.
But Senator Reid is having none of it. He knows that polls show most Americans blaming Republicans for the current gridlock. And he knows that the Republican establishment absolutely, positively does not want the government to default on its debt. The tea party, with its grass-roots outrage, might be willing to stay firm on its debt-limit resolve, but establishment Republicans are much more likely to listen to Wall Street, and a failure to raise the debt limit could mean global financial chaos. Not good for 401(k)s.
So Reid is trying his hand at the "extortion" game. The Republicans can only save themselves if they get out of this mess, and he's the only Democrat in Congress who has the power to let that happen. So far, he's letting them dangle.
He now wants the Republicans to roll back parts of the sequester budget cuts agreed to during the 2011 debt-ceiling crisis. The sequester, however, happens to be the only major legislative success of the Republicans' tea party era. Asking the GOP to go back on the sequester cuts would be like asking the Democrats to go back on, say ... Obamacare.
"There's no question that House Republicans overreached in trying to use this negotiation to repeal a [health care] bill that was very central to the president's agenda,'' said Sen. Bob Corker (R) of Tennessee, according to The Wall Street Journal. "The same thing is happening on the Democratic side among Senate leadership as pushed by the White House. They're trying to now undo a law put in place in 2011, the Budget Control Act.''
Just like the Republicans didn't have the numbers in Congress to defund Obamacare, the Democrats don't have the numbers to eviscerate the sequester. Not if the Republicans hold firm as the Democrats have. And it's hard to imagine the Republican-controlled House surrendering so meekly, even in its current beaten and battered state.
In all likelihood, Reid is merely pressing his advantage to gain as much leverage as he can. An agreement before Oct. 17, the day Congress needs to raise the debt ceiling or risk default, now seems inevitable.
The real lesson here, it seems, is one of political perspective. In D.C., "extortion" is just politics by another name.