Speaker Boehner and Leader McConnell are effectively maximizing their leverage in the ongoing appropriations negotiation.

Republicans did good work over the past month emphasizing that they don’t want the government to shut down.  In doing so they created a political and press contrast with the chest-thumping Republicans of the 1995 shutdown.

  • 1995 Republicans: “We’re going to shut down the government and like it!”
  • 2011 Republican leaders:  “We don’t want the government to shut down, but if Democrats continue to demand too much spending, we regret that it may be unavoidable.”

If negotiations implode, blame for a shutdown would be more evenly allocated than it was in 1995.  This communications foundation means Republican negotiators have less reason to fear political catastrophe if negotiations fail, and they can therefore demand more on substance.

The two dimensions of these FY11 appropriations negotiations are money and duration.  Both sides want a long duration (seven months, through the end of this fiscal year) if they get their way on money.  Republican leaders place less of a priority on a full-year extension, so they can drive for a better deal on the spending level.  If the Administration and Democrats insist on a seven-month bill, Speaker Boehner and Leader McConnell can make them pay for it.  Another short-term CR is painful for both sides, but apparently more so for Democrats.  This gives Republicans leverage.  Recent press coverage suggests that another short-term CR is quite possible.

Rather than good cop, bad cop, Republican Leaders are playing bad cop, worse cop with their Members. Speaker Boehner and Leader McConnell are together the bad cop.  On both substance and tone they have positioned themselves with the aggressive spending cutters in their party.  At the same time, they can privately tell the Democratic negotiators, “You think we’re bad?  You should see our freshman.  They’re nuts.  We’re not sure we can deliver them for anything short of the House-passed bill.”  While Boehner and McConnell are the bad cop, the freshman / Tea Party / conservative rank-and-file Republicans are the worse cop.  The worse cop’s threat to walk away from a bad deal appears highly credible.  The Republican Leaders’ weakness at delivering votes for a weak bill becomes negotiating strength.  In contrast, we know that if the President supports a deal, he can deliver a significant fraction of the Democratic party to vote for it.  This Presidential vote-delivering strength weakens Democratic negotiators.

Congressional Republicans appear remarkably unified, reinforced by a surprising show of House-Senate unity in yesterday’s Senate floor votes.  I cannot remember a time in the past sixteen years when House and Senate Republican leaders worked as well together as they have over the past few months.  This is led by Speaker Boehner and Leader McConnell, but applied to both leadership teams.

In contrast, Democrats are all over the map.  Minority Leader Pelosi voted against the short-term CR while Minority Whip Hoyer voted for it.  Nine Senate Democrats have loudly positioned themselves to the right of the President and their party leaders, voting against their party’s proposal yesterday. Senate Majority Leader Reid gave an impassioned defense of the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko, Nevada as an example of an important federally-funded priority that should not be cut.

Team Obama overreached last week when they tried and failed to anchor negotiations at the President’s request spending level with their bogus “We’ve come halfway” claim.  When CBS News calls the President’s budget message “the White House’s fuzzy math” and the Washington Post gives the Administration “three Pinocchios,” you know this tactic has failed.  Administration officials insist that another short-term CR would be disastrous.  Yet with 10 days left before the deadline, the President’s negotiating lead (VP Biden) “spent most of” Tuesday celebrating International Women’s Day in Finland.  HIs contribution to the negotiations was placing calls to Boehner and McConnell from Russian President Medvedev’s dacha.  Another short-term CR looks increasingly likely, not because negotiations have failed, but because they haven’t really gotten started.  I hope some high-level phone calls or private meetings are occurring, because there are no visible signs of serious negotiations.

I chuckle every time I hear Democratic Congressional leaders argue that another short-term continuing resolution would be irresponsible.  This entire negotiation exists only because last year a Democratic-majority House and Senate didn’t even try to pass a budget resolution, nor any of the 12 appropriations bills.  Had Speaker Pelosi and Leader Reid done their job last year, spending in FY11 would have been long resolved at a level closer to the President’s request, and Congress would now be fighting over next year’s spending levels as they should be.  The same was true for taxes last year.

Speaker Boehner and Leader McConnell do not have infinite leverage, and they will be attacked from their wing no matter the final outcome.  So far they deserve praise for their tactical acumen in this negotiation.

(photo credit: Scott Davidson)