This is easier than a shutdown and more popular. Polling on the threat of a standoff, with its attendant imagery of federal parks closing their doors and Social Security checks sitting unsent in vaults, doesn't look good for anyone. Last month's Washington Post poll on the possibility asked voters whom they'd blame for a shutdown. Thirty-six percent said Republicans, 35 percent said the president, and 17 percent said both. Republicans, on-message, insist that Democrats want the crisis to happen to help Obama. Democrats, on-message, insist that Republicans are Sam Peckinpah characters who can't be reasoned with.
"Both sides have studied what happened in 1995 as if it was the Holy Grail," said Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore. "I understand that. The country's aware that there's more to this than dickering over a two-week agreement."
I talked to Wyden in the early afternoon; he speculated that the White House could regain the initiative here by defining its goals. "This next round, the White House has an opportunity to frame this debate in terms of pro-growth economics and an agenda the country can rally to," he said. "If not, it's going to look like, oh, a short-term deal, then more people in suits stand around and bicker, then another short-term."
A few hours later, the White House went in another direction. Gene Sperling, the head of the president's National Economic Council, announced that the administration could accept $6.5 billion more in cuts. There was no specifying what the cuts would be. But there would be cuts.
Republicans are taking a lot of ground as they fight this out. They are not taking everything. Their seven-month continuing resolution, passed last month, includes riders that ban Planned Parenthood funding and strip funding to implement the Affordable Care Act and other riders that fulfill promises they made on the trail. The continuing resolution that passed this week doesn't include these. That's the reason Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn. opposed it, and that will be a reason some of their members oppose these CRs. But there's no serious talk of shutting government down over this. The policy fights can happen when the 2012 budget comes out. The debate over cuts can happen now, with Democrats reacting to Republican proposals.
"The cuts we can agree to, ultimately, will be the cuts," said Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb. Asked what cuts he could support, he said: "They will be subject to negotiation, but they will be substantial. My sense is that we have a lot of people running around here with a number or a percentage but not a plan. We need to develop a plan."
Failing that, they can kick the can another two weeks.