On Wednesday night, House Speaker John Boehner walked out of a White House meeting, stood in front of microphones with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, and said that Republicans and Democrats had inched a little closer to a shutdown-preventing budget deal.
About 12 hours later, Boehner announced that things had changed.
"We were closer to a number last night than we were this morning," he told reporters at his weekly press conference.
He didn't offer too many details. Democrats claimed that the process was sidetracked by policy riders, amendments to the funding package that weakened the EPA and banned federal funding for Planned Parenthood, NPR, and the implementation of health care reform, among other things. In other words, they were arguing over liberal priorities that moonlight as conservative bugaboos and vice versa.
"What we've seen each day," said Washington Post reporter Paul Kane to Boehner, "is that the morning and afternoon start with a lot of bravado, and at nighttime you guys seem to get back to optimism. When do you make these decisions? At what point—"
Boehner interrupted him. "I'm glad you recounted that history for me." That was snark, and it got laughs.
"It's the third straight day that started off with heated rhetoric," said Kane.
"Oh, really?" asked Boehner, shrugging. "Look, we do public policy here in Washington, and we do it in a political setting. This is what makes America different than any other country in the world."
The congressional budget process usually doesn't rank that high on lists of Things That Are Great About America. In most parliamentary systems, budgets get passed. In this system, there are multiple veto points that can stop or shred legislation. House bills die in the Senate. The president's budget proposals are sent to the House and arrive without a pulse.
At midnight on Friday, if there's no continuing resolution, the government shuts down. From all appearances, negotiators in the House, Senate and White House are working to prevent that—everyone talks about a face-saving compromise that makes more sense than a shutdown. For there to be a compromise, however, every actor needs to prove that he made as few concessions as he possibly could and that the other side played in bad faith. This is what was happening on Thursday.
First, Democrats and Republicans disagreed about what was being said in key meetings. This isn't unusual, but in the eleventh hour before a shutdown, it's really something to hear. In the morning, Boehner was asked if the policy riders were preventing a deal. He said that they were not.
"There are a number of issues on the table," said Boehner, "and any attempt to narrow this down to one or two would just not be accurate."
Shortly after this, Democratic leaders in the Senate called a press conference in order to blister Republicans for holding the budget hostage over policy riders.
"When the speaker says there's no agreement on the number or the cuts, he does not mean that we're far apart," said Sen. Chuck Schumer, the Democrats' policy chairman. "He just means he isn't ready to say so publicly yet."
"He has to tell his Tea Party rough riders to put this horse in the barn," said Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin. "Save these policy riders for another day."
After this, Schumer headed outside, talking to more reporters about Boehner.
"If he is willing to buck some of the Tea Party people, we will have a deal," said Schumer. "I know exactly what's been going on in those negotiations, and the number and what to cut is not standing in the way. Speaker Boehner does not want to sign off on it, because he'd just be focused on the riders, and it's the riders that are the whole issue."
Republicans had proposed a solution to this, sort of. Earlier in the week they proposed a one-week funding measure that would cut spending by $12 billion, fund the Department of Defense budget for the rest of 2011, and include just two policy riders—a ban on abortion funding in the District of Columbia, and a ban on funding that would close the prison at Guantanamo Bay. The first rider is an easy Republican win, something that has passed in previous budgets. The second was basically a dead letter. Schumer would not answer, specifically, why these were a problem and whether the Senate could take up the Republicans' measure and amend the stuff they didn't like.
"Our focus right now is to try and get a deal," he said, "because this short term, short term, short term, doesn't work."
Republicans saw a trap here. Their $12 billion-cutting CR was a dead letter—the president had said, twice, that he would veto it—but it was an excellent distraction from the Democratic attacks on policy riders and the Tea Party. By bringing it to the House floor, they could put their members on record funding the Department of Defense, and attack Democrats for caring more about a budget win than about giving paychecks to troops. In a series of floor speeches, that was exactly what they did.
"I ask that this House and Senate protect our troops and fund them adequately!" said Rep. Mo Brooks, R-Ala.
"We cannot put fiscal battles ahead of those who are engaged in America's real battles," said Rep. Mike Pence, R-Ind.
"We can give them certainty," said Rep. Ann-Marie Buerkle, R-N.Y., "and give them what they need to keep us safe."
Democrats responded to this bill with a motion to recommit. If it had passed, it would have funded the DOD but not funded the government for that extra week, taking the "troop funding" issue off the table. It failed, with the vote of only one Republican, Rep. Walter Jones of North Carolina. He winced when asked whether Democrats who voted against the GOP's bill were voting "against the troops."
"I wouldn't say that," said Jones. "It's just one of those things.… There are other aspects of the bill that might be the reason they didn't want to vote for it." The GOP's strategy, he said, "made sense. They picked up a lot of votes they weren't going to pick up if they didn't fund the Department of Defense."
Later in the day, the "troop funding" vote would start to look like a chimera. Rep. Michele Bachmann said she'd support a new, clean Defense funding bill in the House, and Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas introduced one in the Senate. This left House Republicans basically where they were in the morning—reminding people that they'd passed a budget, happy to talk about compromise if the Senate would meet them honestly.
"I made a promise of $100 billion to the folks back home," said Rep. Blake Farenthold, R-Texas. (The $100 billion promise amounts to $61 billion in FY2011 cuts.) "If I come home with less than that, I've got to have something to show them. If they're not going to go the full dollar amount, it needs to be the policy riders. It's important to my constituents and me. This is a choke point where we have some leverage to get things done. The big win would be $100 billion and some policy riders. The compromise would be less than that and some policy riders."
This is theoretically possible—it might even be what's being hammered out at the bipartisan meetings. In the meantime, Democrats were expressing confidence that the GOP wouldn't let a compromise happen. The last continuing resolution passed with a plurality of Democrats joining the GOP; the bill would have failed if they hadn't. One of the Democrats who joined the GOP was Rep. Brad Miller of North Carolina. I asked whether it was possible for Boehner to get a compromise that Democrats liked and pass it with their votes adding to a rump of the GOP's votes.
"I don't think he can," said Miller. "If Boehner does that, he's a crippled leader within the Republican Party. This is as much about internal Republican politics as it is about anything else."
That's not how Republicans want it to look. As the day closed, with another White House meeting coming, Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, took to the floor of the Senate and blamed the impasse on Democrats.
"If the president wants to shut down the government over this bipartisan troop funding bill, that is his prerogative," said Hatch. "But I would urge him to reconsider his veto threat and join us in preventing a shutdown instead."
Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., was the next to take the floor.
"Have you ever noticed that when someone points their finger and says it's all your fault, it's all your fault—have you ever noticed that there are three fingers pointing back at them?"
This, as John Boehner said, makes America different than any other country in the world.