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Participants shout slogans and display placards during a rally to "stand up for women's health" at the National Mall in Washington, DC, on April 7, 2011. (Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images/Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images)
Participants shout slogans and display placards during a rally to "stand up for women's health" at the National Mall in Washington, DC, on April 7, 2011. (Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images/Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images)

Konrad Yakabuski

Poker faces taking U.S. to the brink Add to ...

Brinkmanship is as much a recurring feature of the Washington landscape as cherry blossoms in April. And a showdown over spending cuts between the White House and Republicans in Congress has this week left the U.S. capital awash in more poker faces than a Texas Hold'em tourney.

Only, the stakes are much, much higher.

As the deadline looms for a budget deal needed to avert a partial government shutdown, John Boehner has faced his first true test of will since taking over as Speaker of the House of Representatives in January.

The Speaker's dilemma has been a stark one: Stay loyal to the Tea Party newbies who helped the GOP reclaim control of the House in last fall's midterm elections, paralyzing much of the federal government in the process. Or reach a compromise with Democrats that would enrage part of his caucus, but help Republicans curry favour with centrist voters in 2012.

"No matter what, there will be blood on the floor," explained Stephen Voss, a political science professor at the University of Kentucky. "If he sticks to the hard line, he will almost certainly be sacrificing some of his more moderate members" in the 2012 election.

But by turning his back on the 51-member Tea Party caucus, Mr. Boehner would likely provoke a revolt inside his own party, subjecting him and dozens of other sitting Republicans to primary challenges next year.

"If the Republican leadership is seen as compromising with Democrats to continue running up debt, the Tea Party folks are perfectly willing to keep punishing incumbent Republicans," Prof. Voss added.

Wearing his best poker face, Mr. Boehner told Good Morning America on Thursday: "There's no daylight between the Tea Party and me."

We'll soon find out if it's true.

No deal was reached when President Barack Obama summoned Mr. Boehner and the Democratic leader in the Senate, Harry Reid, to a meeting at the White House on Wednesday night. Nor could the trio agree on how to avert a partial government shutdown, set to begin at midnight on Friday night, when they again huddled in the Oval Office early Thursday afternoon.

The three met yet again on Thursday evening at the insistence of the President. "I'm not yet prepared to express wild optimism, but I think we are further along than we were," a downbeat Mr. Obama offered after the meeting. "For us to go backwards because Washington couldn't get its act together is unacceptable."

Few expected the tension to last this long.

After all, the two shutdowns that occurred during Bill Clinton's first term damaged the credibility of the rigid House Republican caucus led by Newt Gingrich. That history was supposed to provide a powerful incentive for Mr. Boehner to cede ground.

Instead, Mr. Obama and Mr. Reid have done most of the compromising by agreeing to spending cuts exceeding $35-billion (U.S.) for the remainder of the fiscal year ending Sept. 30. Coupled with $10-billion in cuts agreed to last month, the total is reasonably close to the $61-billion in spending reductions House Republicans have been demanding.

But Democrats also drew their own line in the sand: They want Mr. Boehner to drop from the budget bill certain so-called "policy riders" that would hamstring the Environmental Protection Agency's authority to regulate greenhouse gases, deny funds needed to implement Mr. Obama's health-care reform law and eliminate federal grants to Planned Parenthood.

"Our differences are no longer over how much savings we get in government spending. The only thing holding up an agreement is ideology," Mr. Reid complained.

Mr. Boehner had sought to extend the deadline for a final deal by getting Congress to pass another stop-gap measure that would fund most government operations for another week, while providing full funding for the Pentagon for the rest of the year.

But Mr. Obama threatened to veto such a bill, saying he would not "once again put off something that should have gotten done several months ago." He called on Republicans to "act like grownups" and compromise in the interests of the American people.

Mr. Boehner did not appreciate the scolding. He accused Mr. Obama of standing on the sidelines for weeks while the Speaker attempted to engage him in budget negotiations. "The President isn't leading," he scoffed.

A short shutdown of the federal government would inconvenience millions of Americans, but it would not have catastrophic consequences.

The same might not be true if Congress fails to raise the ceiling on the amount of money the federal government can borrow. A showdown on that issue is set for as early as next month as U.S. borrowing hits the current $14.3-trillion (U.S.) limit. A protracted standoff could seriously roil bond markets.

The reason is simple: Political brinkmanship makes for great television, but terrible economics.

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