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."
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