Why won’t the president negotiate?
That’s the plaintive bleat we hear from House Republicans who have refused to consider ending the shutdown of the federal government until President Barrack Obama agrees to “negotiate” the terms. On one level, this is a transparent ploy to transfer blame from the Republicans to Obama and fellow Democrats for the shutdown.
(That isn’t working very well, by the way. Polls indicate that, while Americans are fed up with members of both parties over this impasse, they blame the GOP more.)
At another level, though, cries for negotiations also represent a clear reflection of the tactic being employed: hostage taking. Give us what we want or we’ll kill the hostage – which, in this case, is the U.S. and possibly the world’s economy.
The original demand – generated largely by the tea party faction of the GOP – was that the Republican-controlled House would engineer the government shutdown unless Obamacare was defunded. Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona angrily referred to this on Wednesday as “a fool’s errand,” saying the tactic was doomed from the start.
He was revealing the obvious. Senate Democrats never would have passed a bill defunding the biggest legislative achievement of Obama’s first term, and Obama would have vetoed it if they had.
Now, it seems, House Speaker John Boehner and more pragmatic House Republicans are looking for a way out they can claim as at least a partial victory, which might mollify the tea partiers and save Boehner’s speakership. Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., Mitt Romney’s running mate in the last election, floated the outline for such a proposal in a Wall Street Journal column Tuesday.
Ryan suggests that Republicans might be willing to raise the debt ceiling if Democrats are willing to consider structural reforms to entitlement programs, simplifying the tax code and opening up more national land to oil exploration.
Others have mentioned more specifically getting rid of the medical-device tax that helps pay for Obamacare, approving the Keystone pipeline to pump tar-sands oil from Canada and eliminating federal funding for Planned Parenthood.
House leaders reportedly would be willing to raise the debt ceiling for a few weeks if Democrats pledge to use that window to negotiate on a settlement to break the deadlock. If an agreement is reached, the government shutdown could end and the debt ceiling raise could be extended.
But if this is nothing more than an offer to temporarily raise the debt ceiling in return for Democratic concessions, that isn’t a negotiation – it’s still just extortion. For real negotiations to occur, Democrats need a list of demands of their own.
You want to talk about entitlements and the tax code? Well, let’s have a vote on the immigration bill, on raising the minimum wage, on universal pre-school for 4-year-olds, on a jobs bill, on the infrastructure bank.
That would be a negotiation worth having.
The irony is that both sides know where they can find common ground without having to hammer out a complicated “grand bargain.” Obama already has indicated that he would consider some incremental changes in Medicare and Social Security. Many Democrats would like to see the medical-device tax go away. Republicans realize that the sequester is a stupid way to cut the budget.
But before they can move forward, House Republicans have to give up on the fantasy of defunding Obamacare. Then they have to fund the government and raise the debt ceiling to prevent the economy from tanking.
And then they can start dealing.
James Werrell, Herald opinion page editor, can be reached at 329-4081 or, by email, at firstname.lastname@example.org.