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Op-Ed

The uncompromiser in chief

How will the standoff end? With an agreement that doesn't solve much.

Doyle McManus

October 9, 2013

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If you wanted to hear words of sweet conciliation, the White House was the wrong place to go this week.

"We're not going to pay a ransom for America paying its bills," President Obama said Tuesday, sticking to his demand that Congress pass a spending bill and raise the federal debt ceiling without conditions. "I'm not budging."

Instead, Obama doubled down on his favorite metaphor for Republicans' demands: the GOP as a band of terrorists.

He described their strategy as "hostage-taking" and "extortion." Breaching the debt ceiling, he warned, would be "insane, catastrophic, chaos," the fiscal equivalent of using a nuclear weapon. And he dismissed Republican proposals for a new "supercommittee" as a nonstarter unless the GOP reopened the government first.

In other words, the standoff over federal spending and the debt ceiling doesn't look headed for a quick resolution.

There were sound reasons for the president's over-the-top rhetoric. Substantively, he's right about the debt ceiling; once Congress has voted to spend federal money, it has an obligation to allow the Treasury to pay the bills.

But Obama is also trying to solve a problem that's partly his own fault. In 2011, the president negotiated with Republicans over a similar rise in the debt ceiling and agreed to a bargain that gave the GOP some of the spending cuts it demanded in return.

That deal taught Republican leaders that the debt ceiling could be used as leverage to win concessions on other issues. To borrow the president's metaphor: In that case, terrorism worked.

Republicans would put it differently: They bargained hard, and Obama blinked. As recently as last week, House Budget Committee Chairman Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) was assuring colleagues that Obama would fold in this showdown, just as he did before. White House aides say one big reason for Obama's adamancy this time is that he doesn't want the precedent he set in 2011 — reluctantly, at the start of a presidential campaign — to become, well, an entitlement. And he needs to convince skeptical Republicans like Ryan that this time, he won't negotiate.

There are tactical reasons as well that are pushing Obama to dig in his heels. For one thing, public opinion polls suggest he's winning; more voters blame Republicans for the standoff than blame either congressional Democrats or the president. That may not last; if a debt ceiling crisis causes real economic harm, voters will blame everyone involved. But for the moment, it gives Obama added leverage, and he's using it.

Pressure is rising from the business community too. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which spent millions last year to support mostly Republican candidates, issued a statement Tuesday asking Congress to act quickly on the debt ceiling "to avoid inflicting substantial and enduring damage on the U.S. economy."

Equally important, Republicans in Congress are divided, while Obama and his Democrats are uncharacteristically united. House Republicans have rolled out a series of changing (and steadily diminishing) demands, from defunding Obamacare to delaying its implementation to launching the Keystone XL oil pipeline to, well, anybody's guess.

On Tuesday, when House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) made a new proposal for negotiations, he didn't even try to describe what the GOP was hoping to win. "There's nothing on the table, there's nothing off the table," Boehner said. He just wanted "to have a conversation."

Meanwhile, several House and Senate Republicans said they're ready to vote in favor of raising the debt ceiling with no conditions. The lesson for Obama is that the other side may be crumbling and the Democrats' best course is to stand back and watch them crumble.

So how does the standoff end?

As Oct. 17 approaches — the date on which the Treasury says it will run low on cash — the pressure on both sides to stop playing chicken will increase. At that point, despite his uncompromising rhetoric, Obama may find it in his interest to negotiate with the same people he's now calling hostage-takers — something almost every government does, even when it's real terrorists they're talking about.

The deal that's negotiated is unlikely to satisfy the tea party. The president might, for instance, agree to a short-term increase in the debt ceiling in tandem with a commitment to negotiate later over long-term spending cuts.

And it also won't solve the problem in the long run.

"We'll kick the can down the road again," a Republican strategist predicted — meaning a short-term spending bill and a short-term debt ceiling increase.

Both sides will claim victory; they always do. But the long-term problems of the federal budget won't be solved, and the next round of the fiscal standoff will begin the next day.

doyle.mcmanus@latimes.com

Twitter: @DoyleMcManus