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Why ‘nobody blinked’ in political showdown over budget spending

October 1, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
With a government shutdown in full effect and no signs of give from either side in sight, what kind of political calculations are lawmakers taking into account? Gwen Ifill gets insight from Stuart Rothenberg of the Rothenberg Political Report and Susan Page of USA Today.

GWEN IFILL: We return to our lead story, the government shutdown.

The policy has gotten all tangled up with the politics in a giant game of chicken, and each side is claiming the high ground. But haven’t we been here before?

Let’s ask Stuart Rothenberg of The Rothenberg Political Report and Roll Call, and Susan Page, Washington bureau chief of USA Today.

Not because you have all been here before, for a long time, but you were.

I want to ask you first, Susan. The lead in your story today was, nobody blinked. Why?

SUSAN PAGE, USA Today: Nobody blinked, and so with eyes wide open, we headed over a cliff.

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Nobody blinked for individual — nobody — Obama didn’t blink because, of course, he is not going to give away his signature legislative achievement for a short-term continuing resolution. The real question is, why didn’t House Republicans blink on a hand that they are I think likely to pay dearly for, politically speaking?

And I think they didn’t blink because there is a core of Tea Party House Republicans who were elected, many of them, in 2010 and 2012 because of their opposition to Obamacare. And that is the animating principle of their politics. It serves them well in their districts, even though it doesn’t serve the Republican Party well nationally.

GWEN IFILL: But, Stu, who forced it? Who really forced each other’s hand? Was it the Tea Party Republicans or was the White House kind of forcing this confrontation as well?

STUART ROTHENBERG, The Rothenberg Political Report: Oh, I think the White House is filled with confrontation, and is doing things to continue it.

I would give a similar answer, but I would say the Republicans — the Democrats don’t feel like they need to blink. The White House and congressional Democrats think that they have the upper hand. They look at the surveys, they look at the polls, they think the Republicans are going to get blamed. Why should they blink?

As far as the Republicans, I guess I don’t think they can afford to blink now at this point. They have painted themselves into a corner or crawled themselves out onto the limb. Use whatever imagery you would like. But they had been telling their base for months that they’re not going to blink.

And if they come away, walk away with nothing out of this, I think that really creates a lot of disappointment, and Republicans have to worry about turnout in the midterm.

GWEN IFILL: But as you watched them trying to — you heard just — John Boehner just now talking about compromise, and you saw these alternatives rolling out over the last 24 hours. Is anybody miscalculating in the political assumptions they’re making in this kind of standoff?

SUSAN PAGE: I think it is possible the White House can overplay their hand.

For instance, we had Eric Cantor, the House majority leader, call on reporters to show the conferees for the House Republicans lined up on one side of a table, empty chairs on the other side, because Senate Republicans haven’t agreed to join a conference.

GWEN IFILL: Senate Democrats.

SUSAN PAGE: Senate Democrats haven’t agreed to join a conference.

You also have the president saying he is going to — he would veto some of these small spending bills that Republicans are floating, the idea that they could fix certain parts of the government, not others.

I think the White House needs to be careful to explain their case on why these apparent efforts at olive branches are not really that, are political traps, which is how the White House sees them.

GWEN IFILL: Which is why the president was in the Rose Garden today.

But 17 years since the last time we have been in this place, where exactly almost identical arguments were being made. What has changed?

STUART ROTHENBERG:   I think the Republican Party has changed. I think our politics have changed.

The parties have deteriorated in their strength. They decentralized. We have these new super PACs and outside organizations and the Tea Party, a libertarian movement in the Republican Party. It’s very different. And I think these Republicans now are very scared.

It’s interesting. This Senate class of — that is up now is the same Senate class that was up right after the ’95/’96 — right after the ’95/’96 shutdown, the same people. Mary Landrieu was up then. She is up now. But I looked at the Republican senators who were up then, and many of them didn’t run for reelection, but the names were like John Warner, Mark Hatfield.

It was a very different Republican Party. And so I think particularly the House Republicans are more confrontational, less willing to compromise even than the Republican class of ’94.

GWEN IFILL: Are you surprised, Susan, that there is no middle ground somewhere in all this? It seems like whenever — even when we go through these routines, everyone knows where it is going to end.

SUSAN PAGE: That’s the thing that is different I think from the 17 years ago, when I was covering the shutdown at the Clinton White House.

Then, it was a different political landscape. At that point, a third of House Republicans in the 1995 shutdown were in congressional districts that had been won by Bill Clinton. You know, now 7 percent of House Republicans are in congressional districts that were won by Barack Obama.

That shows you how much more partisan the whole country is. A lot of the bridges that used to be used to reach a deal when you needed to reach a compromise have been blown up in the past 17 years. And there is one other difference with 17 years ago, and that is that we have this debt ceiling debate coming up in two weeks that makes what happens now even more serious.

If we can’t reach a deal on this, if it rolls into a confrontation over the debt ceiling, that has much greater consequences potentially for the state of the U.S. economy.

GWEN IFILL: Isn’t that what both sides are eying, that in two weeks they’re going to have to have this fight all over again one way or the other?

STUART ROTHENBERG:   I think so. I think most of us think we’re in this extended period of a fight. And it is really not a matter of who blinks last. It’s a matter of who blinks last. The last will be a couple of weeks from now or later.

GWEN IFILL: Does the public opinion play a role in who blinks? That is, maybe it is a little soon, 24 hours to say, but do people look at this and say, as we saw in our — the opening tape, you know what, I’m exhausted?

SUSAN PAGE: Absolutely.

You do see some House Republicans saying, we ought to have a vote on what they call a clean C.R. That is a continuing resolution without any of these strings attached related to Obamacare. If Republicans are getting hammered in public opinion polls, it seems to me that would be a factor that House Republicans might look at and say, OK, maybe we should fold.

GWEN IFILL: And even some of these piecemeal solutions that the president said he would veto today, keeping national parks open, paying veterans benefits, that may be in response to some of the blowback they’re getting from home?

STUART ROTHENBERG:   Yes, I think so. I think they want to — they understand the dynamic has been they’re on the defensive. They want to put the White House on the defensive, and Harry Reid and the Senate Democrats on the defensive.

But I’m amused by these polls. The worst time to take a survey is in the middle of a cataclysmic event. And so I’m not sure the Republicans are going to be moved in the next few days with these poll numbers. They are going to want to wait and see. They’re going to think long term. They know where their base is and they’re concerned about their base.

GWEN IFILL: This fight is not really about the budget, as we have seen unfold. It is about a lot of things. One of the things it is about is Affordable Care Act.

Is there any wiggle room that you have been able to detect from the White House that would allow them to give something to the Republicans on that?

SUSAN PAGE: Well, interestingly, Senator Durbin this morning suggested maybe there was. It is hard to imagine that — it is easier to imagine getting a deal if you’re willing to give just a little something, even if it is a fig leaf. He suggested they might be willing to do something on the — this tax on medical devices.

GWEN IFILL: But not with a gun to his head, I think is what…


SUSAN PAGE: But not with a gun.

But when it comes to the core of the Affordable Care Act, is that going to get negotiated away? Absolutely not. We will be shut down from now until next year if that’s the price that House Republicans…


GWEN IFILL: Delaying the individual mandate.

STUART ROTHENBERG:   I think both sides have just staked out a very extreme position, portraying the other side as full of ill will and anger and extreme and uncompromising. It’s hard to see how a deal can come about. We will have one, but somebody is going to have to give.

GWEN IFILL: Whatever happened to breaking the fever of partisanship that we were promised? It doesn’t seem like that has happened yet.  

Susan Page, Stu Rothenberg, hang in there with me.


GWEN IFILL: Thank you.