As Secretary of State John Kerry faces off with his Russian counterpart in Geneva, House Republicans and the Obama administration are in their own negotiations to avert an apocalypse over government funding and Obamacare. Kerry's are going better.
Capitol Hill Republicans have returned their focus to the war with the white house up the street over the national debt, Obamacare, and how to use one to stop the other. The combination of the August recess and the now-delayed Syria vote has meant nearly six weeks of legislative inaction, despite looming deadlines. Issues like immigration reform have been taken off the stove completely, given how quickly Congress needs to act on a measure that will authorize funding for the government and, slightly less quickly, an increase to the debt ceiling. Both things which could have been addressed earlier in the year, of course, but, thanks to Congress' near-historic inaction, weren't. With an October 1 deadline for funding the government, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor has threatened to cancel the House's September recess. That recess would have begun two weeks after the House returned from its August recess.
As we noted on Thursday, House leaders aren't really sure how to move forward, as they try to work with the president even while their base heads in a million different directions. Congress is no longer a two-party institution, with enough flavors of House Republican these days to open a Baskin Robbins, which makes the position of House Republican leader mostly an honorary one. When Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid says he feels sorry for Speaker John Boehner, it's only partially Reid concern-trolling.
The points of broad consensus from which House Republicans can operate are these: government spending should be limited and Obamacare is bad. While the two aren't naturally linked, the temptation to do so, to use the moment of perceived leverage offered by the need to fund the government, is continuously irresistible. On Thursday, a group of 43 House Republicans signed on to the latest incarnation of an attempt to do so: pass a one-year funding bill, with more money for defense, less for domestic programs (less even than the sequestered amounts), and require a one-year delay of Obamacare. (The proposal was a direct response to a plan from Cantor that would fund the government through December.) The White House has already pledged to veto any such bill, as they have before. If we're going to continue the war analogy, think World War I.
Republicans may be tempted to point to a survey conducted by The Wall Street Journal and NBC News as evidence that they are operating from a position of strength on economic issues. The Journal isolated data from that poll showing that Republicans (all flavors combined) have regained the advantage on economic issues.
Republicans are now rated higher than Democrats on handling the economy and foreign policy, and the GOP's lead has strengthened on several other issues, including dealing with the federal deficit and ensuring a strong national defense.
On topics such as health care, Democrats have seen their long-standing advantage whittled to lows not seen in years.
Which sounds good until you consider, first, that this is comparing data on a year-by-year basis — the foreign policy number compares 2013 with 2006! — and, second, that "just 28% of Americans said they hold positive views of the GOP, compared with 40% who view the Democrats positively."
NBC News pulled out a different set of data. "Poll: 44 percent of Americans oppose raising debt ceiling," its headline reads. The debt ceiling, as we've noted before, is only tangentially about the national debt, referring instead to giving the government the authority to pay off the bills that Congress already agreed to rack up. It's a distinction that escapes a lot of people, but Republicans hoping to pressure the White House on the issue aren't likely to add that caveat when regurgitating the 44 percent figure.
That sort of pressure is how John Boehner spent his day on Thursday, as The New York Times reports.
“It’s time for the president’s party to show the courage to work with us to solve this problem,” said Mr. Boehner, who argued that budget deals have been part of past agreements to raise the debt limit.
In other words: Come to the table, and let's work out a compromise. The White House will. But unlike the negotiations in Geneva, both sides tacitly recognize the imbalance of power. Until Boehner gets his factions in line, winning the debate will be nearly impossible. If he ever gets them in line.