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Missed chances to seal federal budget deal early

First Published Oct 18 2013 01:02PM      Last Updated Oct 18 2013 01:02 pm

Washington • It always seemed likely that the partial government shutdown would end with a deal largely on President Barack Obama’s terms. But that outcome wasn’t preordained.

There was plenty of anxiety in the White House along the way, as well as opportunities missed by both sides. One came more than a week ago, when both Democrats and Republicans say the seeds of the solution were planted — a serious proposal from Republican House Speaker John Boehner — but they took nearly a week more to bear fruit.

Why so long? To be sure, big issues had to be ironed out. But the major problem with it and other offers was no doubt timing. The essential day for a deal was Thursday, so leaders wanted to get it done before midnight Wednesday night. And this was one of those many Washington fights where everyone would press for advantage until the final hours.



Senior administration officials and aides to congressional leaders described private conversations and certain pivotal closed-door moments to The Associated Press on condition they not be identified. Highlights in the progression of the standoff, resolved with a budget law that reopened government and raised the country’s borrowing authority:

I WOULD NOT EAT THEM HERE OR THERE. I WOULD NOT EAT THEM ANYWHERE.

In retrospect, the tipoff that Washington’s doings would get weirder and weirder came Sept. 24 on the Senate floor. From that historic chamber, designed for sober deliberation, the words rang out, a clarion call to, well, something. "Do you like green eggs and ham? I do not like them, Sam-I-am."

Ted Cruz’s clock-busting quasi-filibuster, which detoured into Dr. Seuss to eat up time and give his daughters a bedtime story from afar, set the stage for a wild ride, a shutdown precipitated by demands from tea party conservatives like him to throw the nation’s new health care program, that plate of green eggs and ham, out the window. Instead, Obama’s health care law emerges in almost exactly the same shape as it was before.

As the Oct. 1 shutdown approached, aides say, Obama called former President Bill Clinton, in office during the last shutdown 17 years ago, to go over his experience leading a nation in financial peril on one hand while trying to outwit his political foes and work with them on the other.

The shutdown closed national parks, sent 800,000 federal employees home and left the political impasse in the hands of Republican and Democratic crisis managers who worked in largely cleared-out buildings, including the White House, where 80 percent of the staff was furloughed and those who were left had to pick up slack.

To lighten the mood, Obama jokingly offered to extend loans to his senior aides.

For months, Obama had insisted he would not negotiate over the debt ceiling as he had done in 2011. Nor was he interested at all in unraveling his health care law.

But as the debt ceiling approached its limit this week, meaning the government could no longer borrow money to pay its bills, angst took hold in the West Wing.

Treasury Secretary Jack Lew, senior economic adviser Gene Sperling and budget director Sylvia Mathews Burwell were veterans of budget deals and their instincts told them that at some point you sit down and hash out differences, senior officials said. Others wouldn’t waver from the no-negotiation stance, among them Rob Nabors, the deputy chief of staff, and senior counselor Dan Pfeiffer. They urged sticking with the plan, which they argued was high risk, but high reward. Most important, Obama was firm on the strategy.

In one sense, the shutdown was breaking the Republicans’ way. Vital services and more were maintained. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel interpreted the laws governing the shutdown to mean he could bring back hundreds of thousands of civilian Pentagon employees to support the military personnel still on the job, so he did. Americans didn’t like seeing their national parks closed, but states were finally able to reopen some on their own dime.

Who outside Washington would care if IRS audits stayed on ice?

The polls were tanking for the GOP nonetheless. And the debt deadline soon overshadowed everything. Leaders on neither side wanted to munch on a default, Sam-I-am.

Obama appeared to recognize that his unyielding stance might wear thin with the public. He signaled readiness to negotiate with Republicans on deficits and parts of the health care law, but only after they restored government finances and increased the debt ceiling. The tone changed. Sure, he would bargain now but not, as he saw it, pay ransom.

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