Not Budging

Iran, Yes. Congress, No. Obama Won’t Budge for Hardliners at Home

After a remarkable day for diplomacy, Obama turned to his hardliner foes here at home. By Eleanor Clift.

Mark Wilson/Getty

The contrast could not have been greater between a pair of diplomatic breakthroughs and the intransigence of Congress. Appearing in the White House briefing room Friday afternoon, President Obama said he had just spoken with Iranian President Rouhani, everything was on track for the nuclear issue, and the U.N. Security Council had reached a resolution that would ban Syria’s chemical weapons. Who could have imagined that negotiating with the Iranians and the Russians would be a more fruitful experience than working with the U.S. Congress?

With just three days left before the government runs out of money and must shut down, Obama stuck by his refusal to negotiate any of the terms the GOP is putting forward, from defunding Obamacare to avoid the shutdown, to a long list of demands that he said includes cutting taxes for millionaires and rolling back regulations on polluters, or else House Republicans won’t vote in the next few weeks to raise the debt ceiling.

“I’m willing to make a whole bunch of tough decisions,” he said, adding not all of them are ones his party would like, “but I’m not going to do this under the threat of blowing up the entire economy.” He called out the Republicans for “appeasing” the Tea Party on issues that have nothing to do with the deficit. And after the spectacle of Ted Cruz talking for 21 hours, the debate now moves to the House, where more than 40 self-styled Ted Cruzes have so far refused to budge from their hard-line position.

Driven by ideological conviction and also by a personal animus toward Obama, even if they manage to avoid a shutdown by Tuesday, House Republicans are prepared to do greater damage by refusing to the raise the debt ceiling, which is a vote that must be taken by mid-October or the U.S. will default on its credit. Addressing the personal nature of the standoff, Obama said, “It is not a concession to me–that’s not doing me a favor.” It’s about what he called the “solemn responsibility” of lawmakers. “Nobody gets to threaten the full faith and credit” of the U.S. “because there are a couple of laws you don’t like. We haven’t done it in the past, and we’re not going to do it now.”

He pointed out repeatedly that this is unprecedented behavior, and that he would not allow it. But he didn’t lay out any kind of strategy to head off the train wrecks on Capitol Hill, other than to let the brinkmanship play out. Some Democrats say the GOP’s behavior is so reckless that it could affect next year’s midterm elections, and give the Democrats a chance to take back control of the House.

But Obama did not sound like he wanted that outcome, especially with the debt ceiling. “Do not threaten to burn the House down because you haven’t gotten 100 percent of what you want,” he said. “That’s not how democracy works.” Imagine if a Democratic House Speaker held a Republican president hostage, demanding corporate taxes be raised 40 percent, and background checks be initiated for all gun buyers, “Nobody actually thinks we’d be hearing from Republicans that is acceptable behavior.”

A lot of what is going on is “political grandstanding,” Obama said, and generally the crisis is averted at the eleventh hour. Either way, enrollment for Obamacare begins on Tuesday, “no matter what… it’s a done deal.” Far more dangerous than a government shutdown are the GOP threats to hold the debt-ceiling hostage to their pet demands. “We don’t fully understand what might happen, the danger involved,” because it’s never happened, Obama said. It would have a destabilizing effect on the world “because America is the bedrock of the world economy. The dollar is the foundation for our capital markets–so you don’t fool with it.”

Polls show the public is more likely to blame the Republicans if they force a government shutdown over the health-care law, but Obama has a more complicated message to convey about the debt ceiling. It’s an esoteric fight that has the public divided over whether the administration should agree to more spending cuts. Both these issues could easily be resolved if House Speaker Boehner went to Nancy Pelosi and asked how many votes she could put on the board first to fund the government, then to raise the debt ceiling. It would be a big number. Democrats and Wall Street Republicans would laud Boehner as a hero while the right would run him out of town. The hardliners in Tehran have nothing over the Ayatollahs in Washington.