Carl Leubsdorf: This isn’t the end of Capitol strife

10/22/2013 12:00 AM

10/21/2013 6:52 PM

Americans can be forgiven for being confused, as well as frustrated, by Washington’s dysfunction. The weeks-long impasse on government funding and the debt limit, a stalemate finally broken last week, began with a Republican effort to undermine President Obama’s signature achievement, the Affordable Care Act.

But more recently, little was said about Obamacare. That’s because, despite the political theatrics incited by Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, the health care law was only a part of a larger, more fundamental effort by House Republicans to exert ongoing leverage over Obama.

The underlying substantive piece of this battle is the same one that sparked prior crises – how and where to reduce the budget deficit. Senate Democrats sought a shorter extension of federal spending authority, giving them a chance to revise or reduce the mandatory sequester of federal funds before the next phase takes effect Jan. 15. Senate Republicans argued for a longer increase in federal spending authority, allowing the Jan. 15 sequester to take effect without changes sought by the Democrats. (Typically, the failed House effort would have extended it a shorter time, part of its effort to exert leverage.)

The bipartisan Senate compromise calls for developing a 10-year budget blueprint.

The major factor precipitating this crisis was Congress’ failure to pass the regular appropriations bills that would fund the government for the fiscal year starting Oct. 1. That stemmed in part from the fact that cuts in domestic programs in Rep. Paul Ryan’s budget, which the House passed last March, were so extreme that the GOP-led House Appropriations Committee was unable to draft funding bills in several areas that both met the Ryan numbers and were acceptable to a majority of the House.

Though budget issues are at the heart of the substantive dispute between the two parties, another factor was Obama’s decision back in the July 2011 debt-ceiling dispute that he would not negotiate conditions for future increases. He did so to try to keep House Republicans from using those increases for leverage over his initiatives and inciting the battles that on three occasions so far have threatened the U.S. economy and the stability of the world’s economic system.

Obama may have succeeded this time, but GOP leaders plan to keep challenging his domestic agenda, especially his effort to include revenue increases and limit entitlement reductions in curbing the deficit.

And though polls show an increasing portion of the public blames Republicans for this month’s mess, House GOP leaders appear confident that gerrymandered districts will enable Republicans to resist any Democratic wave in next year’s congressional elections. They also count on the fact that it’s normal for the administration’s party to lose seats in midterm elections of a president’s sixth year.

Recent polls, though, may have created sufficient concern among Senate Republicans to inspire them to start trying to resolve the dispute, notably Maine Sen. Susan Collins’ proposal. And though current public attitudes are unlikely to remain fixed through 2014, a margin close to the Democrats’ 8 percentage point advantage in last week’s NBC-Wall Street Journal poll could, in fact, threaten the GOP’s House majority.

In any case, the main factors in this autumn’s impasse – the desire for political leverage and disagreements over how to cut the deficit – aren’t going to disappear. Instead, they seem likely to precipitate many additional clashes in the remaining 39 months of the Obama presidency.

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