Just two weeks ago, after he watched 54 of his own members defect from an emergency spending bill to keep the government from shutting down, House Speaker John Boehner realized he was in a fix. The numbers told an important story — that to keep the federal lights on, Boehner would need help from Democrats just to pass legislation through the House. And that would mean cutting a deal, and enraging his conservative rank and file.
At a jobs forum in the auditorium of the Capitol Visitors Center, he softened his rhetoric and acknowledged his weakened hand.
“It’s never been lost on me that because we only control the House there are a lot of other players that we need to work with in order to come to any agreement to keep the government open,” Boehner said. “But I’m confident that we’ll be able to find a way to cut spending — which we believe will lead to a better environment for business to hire people in America — and keep the government open.”
Something changed between then and now. This week, Boehner and House Republicans are drawing thick lines in the sand in budget negotiations with Democrats, and the threat of a shutdown — something Boehner has insisted he wants to avoid — has spiked. On Tuesday, principals on both sides spoke as if a shutdown wasn’t just inevitable, but imminent. Cue finger-pointing.
Democrats won’t be responsible for a shutdown, said House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer. “It’s self-evident by the statements of so many Republicans and the votes of 54 people…that voted not to continue government…unless they got what they wanted.”
Hoyer was one of several high-profile Democrats to make this case.
“At the end of last week the House Republicans did a strange thing,” said Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) on the Senate floor Tuesday morning. “They pulled back from the talks. They changed their minds about what level of spending cuts they could accept. We were right on the verge of a potential breakthrough and they suddenly moved the goalposts.”
Schumer added, “Speaker Boehner is caught between a shutdown and a hard place. He’s caught a tiger by the tail in the form of the Tea Party. There’s even a Tea Party rally planned for later this week to pressure the Speaker not to budge.”
“Sen. Schumer believes his party would benefit from a government shutdown,” said Boehner spokesman Michael Steel in a statement to reporters. “At this point, the House has passed a bill to fund the government through the end of the year while cutting spending. The Senate has not - and Sen. Schumer’s inaccurate rants won’t change that.”
Republicans meanwhile, have for the first time since the spending debate began, acknowledged that a shutdown is looming, and begun trying to cow Democrats into backing down by suggesting the public will blame them for the gridlock.
“In the scope of our debt crisis, if Senator Reid and Senator Schumer force the government to partially shut down over these sensible spending cuts, Americans will hold them accountable,” said House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in a statement yesterday.
“We did control Washington for two years and the government didn’t shutdown any second of those two years,” Hoyer said, mocking the coming GOP line. At an event early Tuesday morning, Hoyer said the odds of a shutdown had climbed significantly in the last two weeks.
So much of this has played out behind closed doors that it’s hard to suss out exactly who’s right. But we know that Republican rhetoric has stiffened, and that, after weeks of keeping their heads down, Democrats began leaking detailed accounts of the failed negotiations early this week. Republicans dispute these accounts, and say nothing has changed — but something clearly has. And Republicans don’t have a compelling explanation for it.
But the facts are complicated and weedy. So each party’s spin machines are gearing up to convince the public that the other party’s at fault. Those lines of argumentation are now clear. It’s unclear who’ll win that spin battle — but it’s worth pointing out that the White House has been prepared for this outcome for a long time.
Brian Beutler is TPM's senior congressional reporter. Since 2009, he's led coverage of health care reform, Wall Street reform, taxes, the GOP budget, the government shutdown fight, and the debt limit fight. He can be reached at email@example.com.