President Barack Obama speaks at an event commemorating Greek Independence Day in the East Room of the White House, Friday, March 25, 2011 in Washington. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster) (AP)

How to tell if Obama is losing the budget showdown

A quick and dirty scorecard for would-be judges. Hint: If GOP forces a government shutdown, it loses


Andrew Leonard
March 28, 2011 7:50PM (UTC)

Monday morning budget showdown fun. Citing a Wall Street Journal article reporting that Senate Democrats have offered another $20 billion in cuts to Republicans, Paul Krugman, Ezra Klein and Steve Benen all are on the same page: The gesture represents a defeat for Democrats, because it means that the total cuts they have agreed to now matches what the House Republican leadership originally sought, before Tea Party rage pushed the GOP to demand even bigger cuts. Krugman says this proves Obama is a "poor negotiator," while Klein dubs it an "overwhelming win" for Republicans.

But the headline of that Wall Street Journal article is "Fiscal Showdown Looms in Capitol," and there are numerous other reports suggesting that Democrats and Republicans are nowhere near agreement. The two sides apparently can't even settle on a baseline for negotiation.

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From the New York Times:

Congressional officials said the budget talks were set back significantly in a meeting Tuesday when the participants feuded over what legislation should serve as the benchmark for the talks -- the House-passed spending measure with $61 billion in cuts for this year or an interim budget bill approved by Congress in early March that maintained financing for most programs at their current levels.

Democrats, who believed they had an agreement to work off the stopgap plan, felt blindsided, officials said. Jacob J. Lew, the White House budget director and chief Democratic negotiator, angrily resisted the Republican push to use the House measure as the starting point. The meeting abruptly broke up, with talks resuming haltingly since then.

Also still unresolved: The question of the politically controversial "riders" attached to the original House spending measure that take aim at fulfilling hard-line conservative social policy goals.

One Wall Street Journal report is not enough evidence to declare a winner -- or a loser. But there's not much time left. The next big dealine -- the expiration of the continuing resolution currently funding the government --- is April 8. So here are three scenarios that could play out in the next two weeks that will allow us to score this fight.

1) The Democrats offer cuts equaling the House Leadership's original proposal, minus social policy riders. Facing a rebellion from hard-line members, House Republicans reject those cuts as insufficient and force a government shutdown.

Score: Big win for Democrats. Public perceives them as willing to compromise, while judging Republicans too extreme. This, in turn, dramatically affects ensuing fight over raising the debt ceiling, as well as negotiations on the 2012 budget and entitlements.

2) The Democrats offer cuts equaling the House Leadership's original proposal, minus social policy riders. House accepts.

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Score: Win for Republicans. Speaker of the House John Boehner plays his hand perfectly, gets bigger cuts than the conventional wisdom expected originally, avoids blame for government shutdown, strengthens position for follow-up.

3) The Democrats offer cuts equaling, or exceeding, the House leadership's original proposal, plus some social policy riders. House accepts.

Score: Huge win for Republicans.

My bet is on the second outcome, though I suspect the White House is steering for No. 1. Stay tuned.


Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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