President Obama held a press conference on Tuesday reiterating his position on the budget crisis: Get the government running, raise the debt ceiling, and then negotiate. "We're not going to pay a ransom for America paying its bills."
He issued his clearest summary in comments near the end of the press conference. Referring to the repeated last-minute push for deal-making in Congress, he said:
I know the American people are tired of it. To all the American people: I apologize. You have to have go through this stuff every three months. Lord knows, I'm tired of it. But at some point, we've got to break these habits … In negotiations, there's give and there's take. You do not hold people hostage or engage in ransom-taking to get 100 percent of your way.
Obama spoke on the eighth day of the shutdown and nine days before the Department of the Treasury suggests the government needs to increase the debt ceiling. On Tuesday morning, the House Republican caucus again suggested that the two sides might begin formal negotiations over the latter issue — a proposal that the president rejected, as he has in the past.
During the press conference, he addressed that decision. Those talks, he said, "shouldn't require hanging the threats of a government shutdown or economic chaos over the heads of the american people." He analogized in more basic terms. "The American people do not get to demand a ransom for doing their jobs. You don't get to call your bank and say, 'I'm not going to pay my mortgage this month unless you throw in a new car and an XBox.'" Later, he made the point more bluntly: "We can't make extortion routine as part of our democracy."
There was one small crack opened. Republicans, he said, "can attach some process to [a debt ceiling or funding bill] that gives them some certainty that the things they're concerned about will be topics of negotiation — if my word is not good enough." That's the first time the president has allowed that a bill passed by Congress could include an amendment of any sort.
During the rest of his comments, Obama understandably focused on the more distant but more problematic issue of the debt ceiling, the federal limit on the government's ability to borrow money to pay its existing bills. His new term for this plays off the government closure, calling it an "economic shutdown."
He rejected the idea that the country would default on its debt — "no option is good in that scenario" — and also indicated that any default, no matter how the government addressed it, would present significant damage to the economy. "There's no silver bullet," he said. "There's no magic wand that allows us to wish away the chaos that could result." (For those paying close attention, he didn't directly answer whether or not the government could prioritize which bills it paid in the event of default and again ruled out a platinum coin.) "Warren Buffett likened default to a nuclear bomb," he said, "a weapon too horrible to use." As for those who deny those effects, "I'm happy to talk to any of them individually and walk them through exactly why it's irresponsible." He went on:
It's particularly funny coming from Republicans who claim to be champions of business. There's no businessperson out there who thinks this wouldn't be a big deal. Not one. You go to anywhere from Wall Street to Main Street, and you ask a CEO of a company or ask a small businessperson whether it would be a big deal if the United States government isn't paying its bills on time. They'll tell you it's a big deal.
"We've been here before," he pointed out, referring to international perceptions following the debt limit fight in 2011. "I think the assumption was that the Americans must have learned their lesson, that there would be budget conflicts but nobody again would threaten the possibility that we would default." The current situation, he said, probably "makes them nervous." Overall, the damage done to the American reputation involved "missed opportunit[ies]" (like his cancelled trip to Asia) more than a decline in status.
Asked about a Supreme Court case that could again loosen rules on contributions to political campaigns, Obama suggested that he believes the Citizens United decision "contributed to some of the problems" that the Capitol currently faces. "What it means," he said, "is ordinary Americans are shut out of the process."
Early in his comments Obama addressed Republican arguments that he wasn't willing to negotiate. He pointed out that the Speaker called for a regular order for determining the budget earlier this year — bills passed by each house, a conference committee to work out differences, and his signature. That didn't work. "Nineteen times they've rejected" conferring on the budget, he said. "So even after all that, the Democrats in the Senate still passed a budget that effectively reflects Republican priorities at Republican budget levels just to keep the government open. And the House Republicans couldn't do that either."
He demanded that his opponents not make the problem worse than it was, and instead offer solutions. "That's what the American people expect," he said. "Just civility, common sense, give and take, compromise. Those aren't dirty words."
The press conference was a long one. By our calculations, it lasted 0.54 percent of the entire shutdown so far.