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Bill Passes, But Will Stalemate Be Repeated?

Bill Passes, But Will Stalemate Be Repeated?

By Alexis Simendinger & Caitlin Huey-Burns - October 17, 2013

As President Obama exited the White House briefing room Wednesday night after the Senate approved a measure to reopen the government and raise the debt ceiling, a CNN reporter called after him with a question all of Washington continues to ask:

Will the government be back in the same stalemate in a few months?

“No!” he answered firmly, turning to face the cameras to make his point.

Obama’s comments, coming before the House even voted on the bill, immediately set some conservatives’ teeth on edge. Brendan Buck, press secretary to House Speaker John Boehner, tweeted one word after listening to the president: “Sigh.”

Obama had just wrapped up remarks about “lessons” learned -- and his ambitions for a budget agreement, immigration reform, and a farm bill all before the year’s end. But those goals sounded dreamy given the ringer Congress had just put itself through, only to end up close to where it began a few weeks ago. Tired lawmakers left the chamber Tuesday night acknowledging the reset button they had pressed was only temporary, given this Congress’ history of brinksmanship around fiscal deadlines.

“You know, there’s an old adage: There’s nothing to be learned from the second kick of a mule,” Sen. Bob Corker told RCP after the 81-18 vote. “So maybe there’s been a little bit of an education. We’ll see.”

House conservatives, to whom Corker was referring, publicly recognized the establishment wing of the GOP -- and Democrats -- had won this round, and most stood by Speaker John Boehner, who has been caught in the middle. But they had mixed feelings on how to proceed: Continue the fight, concentrate on the midterms, and revise their messaging were among the suggestions.

The bill, which later passed the House by a 285-144 vote, was scheduled to be quickly signed by the president, thereby staving off default on the nation’s debt and ending the 16-day government shutdown. (In a statement last night, Sylvia Mathews Burwell, director of the Office of Management and Budget, said that furloughed federal employees “should expect to return to work in the morning. Employees should be checking the news and [the Office of Personnel Management’s] website for further updates.")

On Thursday morning, Obama plans to expand on his Congress-has-to-get-back-to-work theme in another White House statement, to be delivered from the State Dining Room.

“Hopefully, next time it won’t be in the eleventh hour,” he said Wednesday night. “We’ve got to get out of the habit of governing by crisis. My hope and expectation is that everybody has learned that there’s no reason why we can’t work on the issues at hand; why we can’t disagree between the parties while still being agreeable; and make sure that we’re not inflicting harm on the American people when we do have disagreements. Hopefully, that’s a lesson that will be internalized, not just by me, but also by Democrats and Republicans; not just the leaders, but also the rank-and-file.”

Some moderate Republicans leaving the Senate chamber after voting shared that hope. “I think a number of people will have learned a lesson that shutdowns and defaults should not be the way we do business. They should be off limits,” Sen. Lamar Alexander told RCP.

“Any objective observer knows this is a hard blow to the Republican Party and we’ve got a real task ahead of us to dig ourselves out,” John McCain said, noting his hope that cooler heads will prevail in the future.

During the weeks-long clash, the president said his goal was to end conservatives’ enthusiasm for brinksmanship, especially when tied to the nation’s borrowing authority. Passage of a bill to reopen the government and pay the nation’s bills did not cure that problem, since lawmakers agreed to shift the debt ceiling deadline four months into the future, to Feb. 7, and to fund government operations only until Jan. 15.

“It’s fair to be skeptical,” said Sen. Tim Kaine, a Democrat and a member of the Budget Committee who will work on conferencing the two chambers’ spending plans in the weeks to come. “But I think a lot of people will have been chastened by the needless pain that’s been inflicted upon people.”

In the exhausted rush to end the fiscal drama, lawmakers talked about relenting on, but not forsaking, their principles. Late on Wednesday, however, the wary skeptics and determined conservative warriors sounded just as numerous on Capitol Hill as the tribe of sunny optimists who said things would be different going forward.

Obama believes his no-negotiations resolve changed the climate, even though the policy arguments will continue within the new budget conference committee process, which is supposed to report by Dec. 13.

“Well, I think what has changed is they’re aware of the fact that I’m not budging when it comes to the full faith and credit of the United States,” Obama said last week when asked why he thought the cycle of impasses since 2011 would stop.

“The Republicans, recognizing this was not a good strategy and seeing the horrible reaction from the American people, I’m pretty sure they’re not going to run this play again,” the president added Tuesday when asked a similar question during an interview with WABC-TV.

In that interview, Obama pointed to the Senate as proof that bipartisanship and a willingness to find governance solutions can bloom amid such stalemates.

He was correct -- Senate Republicans grew exasperated with their House counterparts, and said so. A deal came together in the upper chamber to avert an economic calamity and reopen the government, though Minority Leader Mitch McConnell did not soften his criticism of Obamacare, and conservatives gave little ground when it came to across-the-board spending cuts known as sequestration.

The president often notes that House conservatives worry about inviting primary opponents if they compromise with Democrats. He has said that when he is seen just talking with Boehner, it only serves to weaken the speaker’s standing with his conference. That reality was tested, but did not change, during the shutdown drama. A slew of public polls show Americans blame Republicans more than Democrats for halting government for 16 days and risking default in an effort to delay or repeal the Affordable Care Act, enacted in 2010.

“I’m just pointing out that House Republicans just got rolled, but what I don’t know is whether enough of them are going to take away a good lesson learned and finally get back to negotiating in good faith on compromises,” said Jim Manley, a former spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. “I’m skeptical.”

White House Press Secretary Jay Carney was similarly hesitant to don rose-colored glasses Wednesday before Congress voted. “I think it is early -- given what we've been through -- to start predicting future bipartisan harmony.”

When mulling the question of whether things would change between now and next year to yield different results, South Carolina Republican Rep. Mick Mulvaney pointed to the delay of the individual mandate as something that could be more of a winning argument for his party, given the failures of the health care rollout. Mulvaney said his party should harness a message of fairness -- that if the president delayed the measure for businesses, he should do so for individuals.

“The natural inclination is to say no, it will be exactly the same,” Mulvaney said. “But if we can figure out a way to drive that message home, that this is about fairness, that this is about principles -- not about tactics, not about politics, not about elections … then the outcome will be different.”

Some conservatives are eyeing next year’s midterms, but in different ways. Idaho Rep. Raul Labrador suggested elections could turn the dynamic in Washington in their favor. “I think this is going to be about the 2014 elections -- how this would have turned out better if we had more conservatives in the House and took the majority in the Senate,” he said. “That’s what we have to do for the next 14 months.”

Others view the calendar as a way to embolden conservatives before those elections. “I hope we eventually have a battle and I hope it’s directed long-term about what the answers are. By then we will have a lot of primary challenges already filed,” said Kansas Rep. Tim Huelskamp. “There are some folks that might change their opinion if they have a primary challenger. A number of those states will have already been through those primary deadlines that will encourage some folks to have some more backbone.”

Members of the Appropriations and tax-writing Ways & Means committees thought things could be different in the future because they can now work through better legislative vehicles. “I think the budget conference coming together could sort of free the politics in two areas: realistically redesigning the sequester, so it makes more sense, and finally starting moving forward from CRs to let the appropriators do their work,” Texas Rep. Kevin Brady told RCP. But he admitted he was highly skeptical about what Obama can achieve.

“Unless the president changes course and engages on how we save Social Security and Medicare in a meaningful way, which is really the bigger picture in the D.C. debate, my worry is that we could see this happening again in three months,” the Republican congressman said. “Maybe the president is counting on the American public believing forever that he has no role in government in Washington or solving this problem. But if were him, I wouldn’t push that.”

Brady argued that the biggest driver of discussions next time could be the president’s own legacy: “At some point, I think his legacy will be defined by the brinksmanship he was a part of and may have helped bring about.” 

The next steps in the fractious dance we call governance will be up to the conferees. That committee consists of House members Paul Ryan, Tom Cole, Tom Price, Diane Black, James Clyburn, Chris Van Hollen, and Nita Lowey. And from the Senate, the entire Budget Committee: Patty Murray, Ron Wyden, Ben Nelson, Debbie Stabenow, Bernie Sanders, Sheldon Whitehouse, Mark Warner, Jeff Merkley, Chris Coons, Tammy Baldwin, Tim Kaine, Angus King, Jeff Sessions, Charles Grassley, Mike Enzi, Mike Crapo, Lindsey Graham, Rob Portman, Pat Toomey, Ron Johnson, Kelly Ayotte, and Roger Wicker. 

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