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BAKER: Ending the shutdown and addressing the debt limit

Why Obama must negotiate with House Republicans

- - Thursday, October 10, 2013

I never thought of Tip O'Neill as an arsonist, hostage-taker or suicide bomber when I was President Reagan's White House chief of staff or his secretary of the Treasury. Yes, the Democratic House speaker was a pain in our collective Republican rump. Seven times during seven years, he helped us shutter the federal government during ferocious budget battles.

Still, I considered O'Neill to be a passionate, if not sometimes stubborn, leader of the opposing party who was using every political trick in his book to get what his supporters wanted.

Things are different in today's highly charged political atmosphere. Name-calling has become the norm, gridlock reigns supreme, and the president has taken the uniquely obstinate stance that he won't negotiate with House Republicans over the debt limit or to reopen the federal government.

This is a very sad state of affairs, one that started when one element of the Republican Party gravely miscalculated that they could defund Obamacare by refusing to keep the government open. Such an approach was never a politically reasonable or achievable one, not even in a Grimm's fairy tale, because Democrats control the White House and the Senate.

What has happened in the aftermath of the Republican misstep, however, can be corrected. President Obama has refused to negotiate with House Republicans. This is a lack of leadership approaching dereliction of duty. Presidents have always negotiated over the debt limit, and so should this one, just as he did in 2011.

Some would argue that the president is leading our country by not giving in to blackmail. I wonder if those same oracles think that Reagan was giving in to O'Neill's blackmail when he compromised on the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings deficit-reduction bill amid a debt-ceiling battle?

Do they think that President George H.W. Bush was giving in to blackmail when he struck a budget bargain with a Democratic Congress in 1990 to raise both taxes and the debt limit and to limit spending?

Do they think that President Clinton was giving in to blackmail in 1997 when he worked with Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich to balance the budget amid a potential debt-ceiling crisis? Of course, they don't think that way — because that's the way our system works.

And they probably don't think that then-Senator Obama was trying to blackmail Republican President George W. Bush when he joined every other Senate Democrat in 2006 to oppose a debt-ceiling hike amid the debate over U.S. involvement in Iraq.

To be fair, a White House spokesman has since said that Mr. Obama now thinks he made a mistake when he stood on the Senate floor seven years ago and declared, "The fact that we are here today to debate raising America's debt limit is a sign of leadership failure ... Increasing America's debt weakens us domestically and internationally. Leadership means that 'the buck stops here.'"

President Truman taught us that the buck doesn't stop in the Senate or House chambers — it stops at the desk of the Oval Office. That is where the leader of the country sits and where the responsibility ultimately lies.

If the president fails to negotiate, his poll ratings will continue downward along with those of Congress. The rest of the world will have reason to wonder if democracy still works in the United States.

Right now, we don't need another teaching moment, we need a learning moment. Our president must lead.

Rather than trying to persuade Republicans of their bad strategy, the president should roll up his sleeves, and do the messy and difficult work of negotiating. Working with splintered Republicans won't be easy. But working with the opposition is what the good presidents do. They try to work out compromises that can stand the test of time.

So, where do we go from here?

The president's decision to meet with a delegation of House Republicans Thursday was a hopeful sign. But he needs to do more. He needs to find solutions.

One place would be to amend a couple of parts of Obamacare. It is ludicrous to suggest, as some have, that because Obamacare passed Congress and was deemed constitutional by the Supreme Court that no changes should be made to it. Mr. Obama has, himself, changed the law at least five times.

Another place would be to consider negotiating the issues that Republican Congressman Paul Ryan suggested Wednesday by looking at ways to resolve a looming debt crisis. Focus on the entitlement programs of Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security because those three spending programs pose the biggest threat to our long-term fiscal solvency.

Consider income-tax reform by getting rid of tax exemptions and lowering tax rates because doing so can help spur economic growth at a time when our country needs it the most. There is room for give-and-take in all of those issues.

In the meantime, Mr. Obama should invite House Speaker John A. Boehner to the White House for serious negotiations — and not photo ops. If they can't find a solution the first day, they should meet again the next day. And the next day and the next day, if necessary. Let's tone down the rhetoric and turn up the direct talks.

This is, after all, not a particularly novel approach.

James A. Baker III was President Reagan's chief of staff and secretary of state in the George H.W. Bush administration.