It was on Wednesday, the ninth day of the government shutdown, when conversations between the leaders of government finally began to take place.
First there was the 40-minute meeting between House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md., at the request of the Democrats - the first time the two parties have moved beyond self-righteous press conferences and actually talked. Later in the day, the House Democrats traveled to the White House to meet with the president, the first meeting between President Obama and lawmakers since Oct. 2, the second day of the shutdown. On Thursday, he will meet with Senate Democrats and House Republicans.
Are these the early signs of a thaw that could lead to a deal where lawmakers reopen the government and raise the debt ceiling, perhaps with some concessions from both sides?
It’s hard to say. For every sign toward progress, there are other indications that both Democrats and Republicans have dug in their heels and are unwilling to move. In response to their White House invitation meeting, House Republicans announced that they would only be sending a small group of negotiators Thursday, consisting of the elected leadership of the House GOP and a few committee chairmen.
That’s not the way Mr. Obama saw matters. “President Obama is disappointed that Speaker Boehner is preventing his members from coming to the White House,” said White House spokesman Jay Carney in response to the Republicans’ decision. “The President thought it was important to talk directly with the members who forced this economic crisis on the country about how the shutdown and a failure to pay the country’s bills could devastate the economy.”
Carney also reiterated that the only way a “real discussion” will happen is if the GOP first passes bills to fund the government and raise the debt ceiling without any conditions.
Still, the fact that there are talks happening at all is a necessary first step out of the crisis.
“I think the most important thing is to continue to keep conversations going. This system works when people really sit down and do talk to one another,” said Mike McCurry, who was the White House press secretary for former President Clinton. “Even in the midst of the ‘95-‘96 shutdown Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich were on the phone late into the evening every night—whispering sweet nothings to each other, probably—but at least there was a dialogue. There was some type of conversation. So keeping that going is probably the most important thing.”
Another early sign that there are room for talks to begin was a Wall Street Journal op-ed from House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis. Ryan shied away from calling for a dismantling or defunding of Obamacare, and instead wrote that both parties should agree to modest reforms to entitlement programs and the tax code in order to end the stalemate. His suggestions included two ideas that Ryan said Mr. Obama himself has proposed to Congress: asking wealthier Americans to pay higher premiums for Medicare, and reforming Medigap plans to encourage efficiency and reduce costs.
“This isn’t a grand bargain. For that, we need a complete rethinking of government’s approach to helping the most vulnerable, and a complete rethinking of government’s approach to health care,” Ryan wrote. “But right now, we need to find common ground. We need to open the federal government. We need to pay our bills today—and make sure we can pay our bills tomorrow. So let’s negotiate an agreement to make modest reforms to entitlement programs and the tax code.”
Ryan drew criticism on Twitter from some conservatives for not mentioning Obamacare, In an interview with conservative radio host Bill Bennett, he assured listeners that he was still “totally committed to dismantling this law,” and that Obamacare would have to be included in any discussions of entitlement programs, but he added, “I don’t know that within the next two weeks we have a viable strategy for actually repealing Obamacare, every piece of it.”
Ryan is close to Boehner so he can be an insight into the speaker’s thinking. But if his intent was to warm up conservatives to the idea that they may have to reopen the government before negotiating about the healthcare law, Boehner took steps to make sure that wasn’t the GOP’s position.
“Our message in the House has been pretty clear. We want to reopen our government and provide fairness to all Americans under the president’s health care law. You know the law had a big rollout last week, but its been called, and I’ll quote, an inexcusable mess,” Boehner said on the House floor, in reference to the widespread technical glitches on the websites people use to sign up for insurance. “How can we tax people for not buying a product form a website that doesn’t work?...This is why we need to sit down and have a conversation about the big challenges that face our country.”
Still, the shutdown drags on and the deadline to raise the debt ceiling is rapidly approaching. There’s a chance pressure could build from the middle to push the two sides into talks.
Thursday morning, the bipartisan group No Labels will host an event at the Capitol with more than 40 Democratic and Republican lawmakers who will call on congressional leaders to begin working on solving the nation’s problems immediately. Reps. Kurt Schrader, D-Ore., and Reid Ribble, R-Wis., will speak.
“You like to think at that point that both sides will move off of their comfort positions and off their previous statements and come to some kind of an agreement where they can move on,” said former Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va., who is now the Director of Federal Government Affairs for Deloitte. Lawmakers, he said, should “not worry so much about who wins and who loses as we’re both going to give up something and let’s get on with it.”