Washington may have become, as President Obama said on Monday, a place where "compromise has become a dirty word," but in the context of the menacing debt-limit crisis there was a far dirtier word he didn't utter.
While Obama warned House Speaker John Boehner not to turn Americans into "collateral damage," he did not vow to veto the bill Boehner's now pushing to lift the debt ceiling by $1 trillion (good for six months). Boehner's two-step process would impose $1.2 trillion in spending cuts and establish a select congressional commission to propose an additional $1.8 trillion in savings by Thanksgiving.
If Republican leaders were sifting through Obama's speech for one word it was "veto." Its absence gives Obama, Boehner, and the Senate room to maneuver if, as now appears likely, Boehner's bill squeaks through the House and arrives in the Senate as a viable, though less-than-optimal, alternative to default.
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Clearly, Obama prefers Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's proposal to extend the $14.3 trillion debt ceiling by $2.7 trillion (enough to last until 2013) with the new credit line financed entirely by spending cuts that spare entitlements and impose no new taxes—even on easy political targets like corporate jets or oil companies. But Obama did not single Reid's bill out as the only option, just a preference. As Obama and every serious player in this tug-of-war knows, the time for preferences is dwindling and the time for least-best options is nigh.
Consider Obama's carefully worded description of the Reid bill and the way forward.
"I think that's a much better path, although serious deficit reduction would still require us to tackle the tough challenges of entitlement and tax reform," Obama said of the Reid bill, which may fail on a procedural vote on Wednesday. "Either way, I have told leaders of both parties that they must come up with a fair compromise in the next few days that can pass both houses of Congress—a compromise I can sign. And I am confident we can reach this compromise."
The compromise remains undefined and Obama made one last bid for a so-called "grand bargain," the elusive $4 trillion combination of discretionary and entitlement spending cuts and tax reform that represents the biggest possible down payment on long-term deficit reduction. Obama asked Americans made weary by the partisan strife to prod Congress with e-mails, phone calls, and social-media pokes.
"The American people may have voted for divided government, but they didn't vote for a dysfunctional government," Obama said in what may be the speech's most durable line. "So I'm asking you all to make your voice heard. If you want a balanced approach to reducing the deficit, let your member of Congress know. If you believe we can solve this problem through compromise, send that message."
Notice that a "balanced approach" and "compromise" are no longer the same thing. By endorsing Reid's spending cut-only bill (even with proposals Republicans deride as gimmicks), Obama has given up on the grand bargain and so-called balanced approach. If the nation rallies behind that and tells Congress as much, it will be lobbying in a vacuum. If it calls on Congress to "compromise" it will be theoretically pushing for Reid's bill.
Either way, Obama's call for outside help to isolate Boehner and pressure Republicans into buckling is classic divide-and-conquer politics. Boehner is struggling to hold his conference together behind a proposal that's a retreat from the cut, cap, and balance bill passed only last week.
Boehner's taking flak on his right. Now, Obama's depicting House Republicans as stubborn, small-minded, and willing to risk default, higher interest rates, and stock market volatility just to block higher taxes. Obama must position himself against House Republicans—even if he ultimately has to cut a deal with Boehner.
Why? Because even though Obama retains more public confidence and support in this mess than Hill Republicans, this crisis has not elevated his stature. Last week Obama's Gallup weekly approval rating fell to 43 percent, the lowest level of his presidency and lower than Bill Clinton at a similar stage of his budget standoff with Republicans in 1995. The stalemate, as Obama called it, has taken a toll on all players and now the battle is one of short-term leverage.
If Obama can weaken Boehner so much that he can't pass a bill in the House, Reid's bill has a chance in the Senate. Significantly, the current timing (very fluid, to put in mildly) is for the House to vote late on Wednesday and the Senate to follow on Thursday. But if Boehner prevails and his method becomes a live option in the Senate and Reid's bill can't overcome an expected GOP filibuster, Obama's choices will dwindle to two: sign Boehner's bill or come up with something new on the fly.
That Obama didn't promise to veto Boehner's bill signals that Obama may already know the sweet spot between divided government and dysfunctional government. He may not sign the Boehner bill, but the absence of a veto threat is a tell-tale sign that, in the end, Obama may tolerate something much closer to it than Monday night's speech conveyed.
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