- The Washington Times - Friday, February 18, 2011

In December, President Obama and Congress agreed on a temporary funding measure to keep government programs running until March 4, even though the fiscal year runs through Sept. 30. Right now, the Republican-led House of Representatives is preparing its bill to pay for that March-September stretch, but if it can’t come to an agreement before the clock hits midnight, the government will have to suspend operations - a shutdown.

It’s a game of brinkmanship between the two parties that has a precedent: the 1995 budget battles between a newly elected Republican Congress and Democratic President Clinton seeking re-election. Both parties witnessed the stakes of that fight, which resulted in Republicans taking the blame and Mr. Clinton coasting to re-election.

Today, Republican members of Congress are ignoring questions about a shutdown and talking only about reining in the budget. Democratic members of Congress as well as officials in the Obama administration say the Republican goal is to shut down the government. This is the delicate pre-blame game.

No one wants to say too much about what actions his party would take or not take leading up to a shutdown. This is because laying out a pre-shutdown strategy makes it tougher to affect the pose of shocked outrage that leaders from both parties will want to affect if a shutdown occurs. In fact, each party has a major factor pushing it toward a shutdown:

For Republicans, many conservatives want the GOP House to drive a hard bargain with President Obama - harder than most believe the president or Senate Democrats will swallow. Note that the House GOP leadership proudly unveiled a $74 billion spending cut two weeks ago. But within five days, the Republicans hastily ramped that number up to $100 billion in response to a rebellion from their 84-member freshman class as well as other conservatives. It’s questionable how much latitude House Speaker John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican, possesses in negotiating with Mr. Obama and the Democrats. Mr. Boehner conceivably could use votes from House Democrats to replace Tea Party-minded Republicans who refuse to vote for a spending compromise, but that could cause irreparable damage to his ability to lead House Republicans.

As for Democrats, many fondly remember the 1995-96 battle of wits between Mr. Clinton and then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich, which they think paved the way for Mr. Clinton’s re-election. Those Democrats think that goading the GOP into another shutdown is one of the keys to re-electing Mr. Obama and preventing Republicans from controlling the House, Senate and White House in 2013 - less than three years after Democrats held congressional majorities larger than any in a generation.

A shutdown is not assured - in fact, it remains a minority scenario. Why?

Democrats are feeling better about their political prospects, with President Obama polling back at 50 percent in the wake of the Tucson, Ariz., shootings and the tax deal with Republicans in December. They may choose to forgo the risks inherent in a shutdown. In fact, a spending deal with the GOP would be another opportunity to burnish Mr. Obama’s centrist credentials.

The opposition facing Mr. Obama may be more robust than that facing Mr. Clinton in 1995 and certainly is less likely to stumble into taking the blame for the perceived ills of a shutdown. The public is more concerned about spending; the GOP caucuses are more conservative, and Mr. Boehner is considered a far more genial face of opposition than the polarizing Mr. Gingrich.

Many Republicans harbor residual terror from the 1995 shutdown. While they want to cut spending, their willingness to risk a freshly recaptured House majority remains a question mark.

Mr. Boehner and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, have a considerable challenge ahead of them to keep their caucuses united on the spending level they offer to Mr. Obama and the Democrats. But Mr. Obama’s position is perhaps the most delicate. He wants to cut a deal with Republicans that showcases him as a fiscal moderate, but he also must avoid allowing Republicans to make cuts deemed unacceptable to liberals, including gutting of the Environmental Protection Agency or the new health care law.

Mr. Obama has been criticized for lacking Mr. Clinton’s political prowess. Over the next few months, he’ll have a high-stakes opportunity to prove critics wrong by threading this needle.

Loren A. Smith Jr. is an analyst for Capital Alpha Partners.

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