Why Stakes Of Budget Showdown Are Bigger Than Passports, Trash and National Parks

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In a matter of hours, not days, the country is likely to find out if trash will be picked up in Washington, D.C., next week, if Yosemite will temporarily shutter its gates, and if government-issued BlackBerrys will go silent. But there is something more than just the the smell of Washington city streets and views of Half Dome at play in the ongoing negotiations over a continuing resolution to fund the government in 2011. Barack Obama, Harry Reid and John Boehner are going to find out if they can work with each other. (They were not able to finalize a deal late Wednesday in a meeting at the White House, but the conversation continues.)

Though the 2011 budget is a big deal, it is peanuts compared to the negotiations to come over raising the debt ceiling and the 2012 budget. It’s one thing if you can’t get a passport. It’s another if the markets begin to question the good faith and credit of the United States. According to an aide, Speaker Boehner reminded his caucus of this yet again today. “This debate is only a prelude to even larger challenges that lie ahead to reduce spending and create a better environment for job creation in America,” the aide said in a statement. At the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, President Obama has made no secret of his hope to find a way to work with Republicans, in part because this will help his reelection hopes. His team believes it is what the American people want to see. White House aides believe the deal Obama cut with Mitch McConnell last December was a huge victory: A demonstration that political adversaries can trust each other enough to cut a deal that they don’t think is ideal, that Obama can make Washington work again.

So far this year, however, the trust that allowed the negotiation to happen has not exactly been present. A Democrat familiar with the current negotiations tells me that the very process between Obama, Reid and Boehner has been different from both the McConnell experience last year and the negotiations between Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich in the 1990s. “There are a lot of new players that weren’t here in December,” this person told me. “There is so much division even within the Republican caucus. It’s not clear who you deal with. We’ve had some trouble trying to figure out who to engage with.”

Part of this is messaging: Democrats have tried to cast this debate as a case of Boehner not having control of his own caucus. But the messaging springs from a real distrust. There is a clear feeling inside the White House that Boehner has not been entirely clear about his position, or that it has been shifting. Boehner’s people feel that the White House has been misleading in its public statements by suggesting a deal is at hand. There was a demonstrable amount of shock broadcast from Democrats after Boehner suggested at a meeting yesterday at the White House that he would like to see a total level of cuts $7 billion higher than the White House expected. It is one thing to disagree with the person on the other side of the table so much that you cannot reach an agreement. It is another to not trust the person on the other side of the table.

In the end, both sides appear to want to come to a resolution on the 2011 budget. And it is in both sides interest to establish a repertoire that would allow them to have serious negotiations in the future. But right now it is not at all clear that the two sides can pull this off. The Democrat I spoke with recalled that in the 1990s discussions with Gingrich, “once you staked out a position you could work your way towards an agreement.” The person then added: “We haven’t gotten that kind of clarity yet.”

So those are the stakes. Negotiations between Obama, Reid and Boehner are not just about finding the right spending cuts to keep the government running. They are about establishing a relationship that will allow for the nation’s continued prosperity. The second part is probably more important in the long run.

Updated at 9:55 am ET Thursday.