US shutdown: Why Democrats won't negotiate

2013-10-02 13:05

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On Tuesday evening the House of Representatives - the fulcrum of the current US government shutdown - shot down three piecemeal bills that attempted to lessen the shutdown for some federal government responsibilities: national parks, the department of Veterans Affairs, and the local Washington DC government.
This was merely the latest in a series of going-nowhere votes both chambers have been taking over the last week or so in the lead up to the expiration of the US budget. During the Obama presidency the US government hasn’t actually passed a decent budget, instead relying on a whack of temporary continuing resolutions (CR) that have miraculously avoided a government shutdown.

While it isn't abnormal to see Republicans - who hold the majority in the House of Representatives, where appropriations bills are supposed to start - try to exact their own share of legislative success from budgetary issues, their sticking point that led to the current shutdown is Republicans' attempt to rid the country of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA) colloquially known as Obamacare.
Starting last week, Republicans versus Obamacare began in the media when Texas Senator Ted Cruz spoke for 21 hours on the Senate floor, flanked by other conservative senators such as Mike Lee from Utah, ad Rand Paul from Kentucky. This spat began the real birth of the idea that Republicans could pass a bill through the House that funded the government through to December (when we get to do this all over again) without funding Obamacare. If you have been following the story, you will now know that such a bill did pass the House and was rejected by the Senate. This happened again, and again. And is why we are in an unfunded government phase as things stand.

Democrats 'refuse to negotiate'

The Senate, with a Democratic majority, will not entertain a budget resolution that defunds Obamacare, delays it for a year, or strips out government subsidies for elected representatives and their staff (incidentally, had the House just insisted on the last point (you'll see it referred to as the Vitter amendment) you would likely have seen a more difficult vote for Democratic senators), all three of which the House has insisted upon at one or more points. The House then tried to go to the negotiating table with Democrats who rejected the advances, and then saw its own three aforementioned bills die within itself.

House leadership has continually complained that Democrats refuse to negotiate, but seemingly fail to understand that you can't arbitrarily try to smash something up and then complain when someone doesn't come to the negotiating table to meet you halfway. Reflexively, if Democrats held up the whole budget and sent the government into shutdown because they wanted an expansion of Social Security, or enforceable gun restrictions, they would be equally culpable for having taken the federal government hostage.
There are a few reasons Democrats have absolutely no motivation to deal with this current budget impasse:

Firstly, polling shows Republicans are going to get it in the neck for shutting down the government, 46% to the 36% who think President Barack Obama is the problem (according to CNN).  North of 70% of Americans think a shutdown is bad for the country, with 72% against shutting down the government to block implementation of Obamacare. This is in spite of the majority of the country being against the president’s signature law.

Obamacare a mandatory government function

Gridlock in Washington DC is blamed on Republicans by 55% to 33%, according to Quinnipiac. There really isn't massive reputational damage Democrats will suffer relative to Republicans.
Secondly, negotiating Obamacare in relation to the budget - two things that no longer belong in the same debate - is an invitation for yet more concessions on the debt ceiling which is due to be breached in the middle of October, and then again when this CR runs out. And again, and again, and again.

If Democrats go to the negotiation table now they will have to deal with this repeatedly. To be fair, it is likely they will be forced into doing it every time appropriations are debated while Tea Party Republicans hold such sway in the House, but they will be encouraging it should they engage this time. If the two parties were gridlocked over the budget, this would be an entirely different scenario.
Thirdly, Obamacare will run through a government shutdown. It is a mandatory government function and therefore doesn’t need money to be appropriated by Congress. Indeed, the government is currently shut down. But Obamacare is awake and active, and no resolution other than repeal, or presidential executive order, will change that. Obamacare - the object of particular aggravation for Republicans - is in no danger during a shutdown.

Horror stories

Fourthly, House Republicans will splinter. Some of them represent liberal districts. Some of them are so conservative they won’t vote to pass a resolution that doesn’t defund something high-profile. And there is precedent for this happening.
And fifthly, Democrats will not delay any parts of Obamacare, particularly when the consequences of the act remain untested, and Republicans are filling the void with horror stories. Democrats are going to own Obamacare - there is no getting around it - so why would they let Republicans beat them up for another year over the law, versus letting the major parts of it kick in, and let the results speak for themselves leading into Midterm elections next year? No Democrat up for election will be keen to have the guessed effects of Obamacare litigated up until a month before the 2014 elections, and a year’s delay is one of the things Republicans want.
So don't expect Obama and Democratic leadership to entertain any thoughts of getting to the negotiating table when circumstances are as they are now. As things stand, Democrats are going to merely sit down and watch. And let Republicans do all the work themselves.

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