The United States flirted suggestively this week with default but ultimately went home with a short-term solution that sets up a series of similar crises in the next few months.
This is no regrettable one-night stand: Democrats and Republicans now face a deadline for forging a broader compromise on the nation's woeful finances (Dec. 13), while government funding runs out Jan. 15 and the next debt ceiling fight is programmed for Feb. 7. The hard-fought agreement, though widely heralded as a breakthrough, offers only a brief truce in the wars over the government's finances and Obamacare.
Thanks to the deal, the United States won't face default — at least for now. Federal workers idled by the first partial government shutdown since 1996 will get back pay. And tourists frustrated by makeshift barriers and student-art-project-caliber signs declaring popular monuments closed will get some relief. Small-business loans will start flowing again. For moms reliant on food aid, for scientists starved of research grants and for others, it’s a grimmer picture. There's no answer here to government spending cuts that affect them. And forecasters warn that the standoff slowed economic growth, effectively shaving $24 billion from the fragile recovery.
“There are no winners here,” White House press secretary Jay Carney intoned somberly from the briefing room podium.
That’s not quite true — and not just because anonymous "advisers" to President Barack Obama seemingly invited reporters to think of him as JFK facing down the Soviets in the Cuban Missile Crisis, while top aides high-fived one another (and maybe themselves) in pieces like this.
The obvious big winner was Obamacare. Imagine that House Republicans, spurred on by Texas Republican Sen. Ted Cruz, hadn't shut down the government and threatened global economic mayhem to try to force the White House to whittle away at the law. What would have been the top story, not just for health care reporters, but for their more easily distracted brethren who cover politics? The president's signature health care law, his most significant domestic policy achievement had such a botched rollout that it almost felt like his visit to the Federal Emergency Management Agency might have included a covert plea for help.
The White House war plan had called for trying to shift the Obamacare debate from a philosophical dispute about the government's proper role in health care to a battle one aide summarized as "they want to take away your health care benefits." Obama himself linked the Affordable Care Act to Social Security and Medicare. Widely reported glitches could by rights have crippled that narrative. Instead, the shutdown took up so much bandwidth that reporters failed to ask Obama even one question about the botched rollout during an Oct. 8 press conference. And the controversial law actually got more popular during the crisis (though it remains unpopular). The tea party? Less popular.
(Another winner? Republican Rep. Michael Grimm of New York, for similar reasons.)
Obama won. He got what he publicly demanded: the government reopened and a debt limit increase without ideological concession to Republicans.
The GOP vowed not to wave the white flag — and its new strategy sounded oddly like Obama's recalibration of the war on terrorism from vast conflicts like Iraq and Afghanistan to smaller operations like commando raids and drone strikes, thought to be less likely to foster vast popular resentment.
"We will rely on aggressive oversight that highlights the law's massive flaws and smart, targeted strikes that split the legislative coalition the president has relied upon to force his health care law on the American people," Republican House Speaker John Boehner promised on Wednesday.
Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has to be counted among the winners: Arguably the most fascinating and important dynamic of the standoff was the unusual-to-the-point-of-shocking unity among famously fractured Senate Democrats.
To hear one plugged-in Senate Democratic aide tell it, "There wasn't any browbeating and there's wasn't any arm-twisting, because there wasn't really any need." Instead, Democrats saw the public side with Democrats. And even lawmakers facing uphill re-election fights, like Arkansas Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor, spoke out on the floor of the Senate.
"Everyone seemed to understand that a line had to be drawn, and defaulting was it," the aide explained. "As the situation evolved, it became clear that Democratic unity was paying off, especially in contrast with the Republican disarray."
But accepting spending levels in line with "sequestration" — the across-the-board cuts resulting from a debt limit standoff in August 2011 — was "a bitter pill to swallow," the aide said. Will Reid and the White House use the upcoming fights to replace those cuts? Will Democrats divide over spending levels?
What about Obama? His poll numbers sank a bit, though Democrats are quick to point out that Republicans fared far worse and that he doesn't face the voters again. That's true, though the GOP is sure to make him an issue in the 2014 midterms and he still has a stalled domestic agenda.
But one place where the president scored at least a temporary victory was in the notion that the debt limit is off-limits to what the White House repeatedly characterized as "extortion" for partisan gain.
Sure, that position makes his own speeches as a senator denouncing increases in the debt limit look like politically motivated opportunism. But aides describe him as profoundly committed to rolling back the precedent he set with Republicans in the debt limit battle of summer 2011.
It's a promise he made on Jan. 1.
"While I will negotiate over many things, I will not have another debate with this Congress over whether or not they should pay the bills that they’ve already racked up through the laws that they passed," he said. "Let me repeat: We can't not pay bills that we've already incurred. If Congress refuses to give the United States government the ability to pay these bills on time, the consequences for the entire global economy would be catastrophic."
Democrats point to a vote, later that month, in which many of the Republicans vowing never to back a debt limit increase without significant concessions did just that.
But that doesn't mean the president will prevail again.
Obama benefited another way. Grumbling from congressional Democrats had grown louder in the months before the shutdown as the White House faced revelations about spying on Americans and looked utterly adrift on Syria, even as the recovery failed to pick up much steam. But the shutdown helped the president's allies paper over rifts and unite against Republicans.
That unity might be tested as the 2014 elections draw closer.
The picture only gets blurrier for the other players. House Speaker Boehner? In the end, he wasn't able to deliver what several House GOP members privately said they wanted: a meaningful counterweight to the debt ceiling hike, making it easier to explain their votes to folks back home and potentially inoculate themselves against a primary challenge. Those lawmakers will now have to settle for voting "no" on the final bill. But rumors of a possible challenge — implausible on their face given the lack of a plausible challenger — fizzled out.
Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell? His primary opponent will surely try to exploit McConnell's central role in crafting the deal. But the senator himself underlined that the agreement preserved "sequestration" spending cuts. "This is far less than many of us had hoped for. But it’s far better than what some had sought," he said.
Vice President Joe Biden? He didn't play the key role he played in past standoffs. And the White House press office forgot to mention his presence at meetings with key lawmakers at least twice. That might set tongues a-wagging, but aides deny that he'll take a lower profile in those upcoming budget debates.
And Cruz? He boosted his profile sharply with tea party-affiliated Republicans who are likely to shape the party's nomination fight in 2016. And while some might question why he ultimately decided not to try to block a deal he described as "terrible," one senior Republican aide suggested that Cruz had actually shown a sense of timing.
"I don’t think he saw any merit in prolonging this fight," the aide told Yahoo News, "particularly when he could say everyone else 'caved.'"