With Time Running Out, Still No Budget Deal

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Updated, 9:55 PM

As negotiations over the federal budget crawl toward a conclusion, the process has taken on something of a surreal flavor. Members of Congress busy themselves by putting out statements assigning blame for an event they can prevent. A President intent on floating above the fray parachutes in at the eleventh hour to chide both parties for acting like children. The two parties’ point men take a break from maligning each other’s integrity to hold joint press conferences at which they conflate conversation with progress. And an expectant press lurks on the sidelines, waiting for a nugget of information to package as breaking news, even if the news is that nothing has changed.

And nothing has changed. In the past 24 hours, President Obama, House Speaker John Boehner and Senate majority leader Harry Reid have huddled in the Oval Office three times in hopes of hashing out a deal that would fund the government through the remainder of the 2011 fiscal year and sidestep a government shutdown. After the third conclave, which concluded around 9:30 PM, the three negotiators reported progress but no pact. “We have narrowed the issues, however, we have not yet reached an agreement,” Boehner and Reid said in a terse joint statement. “We will continue to work through the night to attempt to resolve our remaining differences.”

Neither took questions from the press. Nor did President Obama, who took the podium in the briefing room after the meeting broke up to urge Congressional leaders to avert a shutdown he said would furlough hundreds of thousands of workers, impact millions of others and “severely [hamper] our recovery and our ability to put people back to work.” Noting that aides would be working through the night, Obama said that because “the machinery of a shutdown is starting to move, I expect an answer in the morning.” He conceded, however, that he was “not yet prepared to express wild optimism.”

The readout was similar to that issued this afternoon, when the two congressional leaders, talking quietly, trudged down the White House driveway to tell a throng of reporters that they still hadn’t bridged their differences. “We continue to have productive conversations. You should all know they’re polite, they’re to the point. But there is no agreement on a number, there are no agreement on the policy issues that are contained with this. We’re continuing to work toward an agreement because I do believe all of us sincerely believe that we can get to an agreement. But we are not there yet,” said Boehner. He also expressed “disappointment” at today’s White House vow to veto a one-week stopgap measure that would fund the Pentagon through the remainder of the fiscal year, while lopping $12 billion off the budget — six times the weekly rate for the past two continuing resolutions. (In a purely symbolic victory, that bill passed the House this morning, 247-181.)

Only in Washington can this pass as progress. And yet, because of the political predicaments facing all the actors, the lingering deadlock is hardly unexpected. There are crucial wrinkles to iron out — not just the precise size of the cuts and where they will come from but the fate of the contentious policy riders. Perhaps more important, it behooves all the negotiators to run the clock down toward zero, when they can frame a compromise as a hard-won victory.

Reid, who has agreed to spending cuts that actually exceed those that Boehner initially sought, is walking a fine line with the liberal wing of his caucus and can’t appear to be a pushover. Boehner is in an even tougher spot; any deal he can get will ruffle his right wing. In the interest of self-preservation, he wants to emerge bloody but unbowed, with a claim to having wrung every possible morsel from the Democrats. Even so, the Speaker could opt to pull a few punches, since he may still need Democratic votes to replace the Tea Party rebels who are bound to rebel at any deal that falls short of the $61 billion the party promised to slash.

Obama faces a balancing act of his own. With a re-election campaign on the horizon, he wants to position himself as a responsible centrist without alienating his liberal base — or the vast majority of Americans who are puzzled by Washington’s inability to hammer out a deal that every player professes to want. “It simply is not that complicated,” White House press secretary Jay Carney said while briefing reporters on Thursday. “If we are reasonable, there are fairly clear and acceptable ways to get from here to there.” Maybe so. But nothing in D.C. is ever as simple or clear as it should be. Particularly when the political stakes are high, Congress has a way of making things as complicated as possible. And the truly surreal part is that few people seem to find this situation surreal at all.