WASHINGTON – Washington once again stands at a moment of crisis — only this time, Democrats and Republicans are not negotiating a way to avoid it. They are not even speaking to one another.
The cumulative effect of almost three years of governing by near-death experience is becoming clear.
Instead of bringing a resolution, each close call has left the parties further apart. These wrenching standoffs have only made them more entrenched. Their focus now rests almost exclusively on what cannot be reconciled and on scores to be settled, rather than on areas where they might actually find common ground.
It is as though Washington has taken evolution backward and is operating as a primitive, leaderless village where petulance passes for governance.
There has been but one set of high-stakes negotiations going on. That is between House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio and the fractious members of his GOP conference.
House Republicans are making a demand that many of their members acknowledge is unrealistic: that President Barack Obama, after being easily re-elected 11 months ago, surrender his biggest domestic achievement.
“We will not repeal or defund ‘Obamacare.’ We will not. And to think we can is not rational,” Sen. John McCain has said.
That Obama is refusing to budge — or even to engage — reflects more than the importance he attaches to the health care law. The White House is looking at this battle through the lens of its past experiences negotiating with Republicans.
Most searing was the failure of the 2011 debt-ceiling talks, which brought Obama tantalizingly close to what he thought would be a “grand bargain” on deficit reduction.
“In 2011, there was an understanding on both sides that we were trying to negotiate a larger deal that would reduce the deficit,” White House communications director Jennifer Palmieri said.
The Republicans’ stance — that they will agree to a bill that would keep the government operating for two months in exchange for a one-year delay of the Affordable Care Act — amounts to “political extortion,” she said.
And even some Republicans are perplexed by how their party, in its drive to undermine the health care law, has taken its focus off the fiscal issues that have been so central for the GOP.
Although the flow of red ink has slowed as a result of an improving economy and spending cuts, the long-term outlook remains dire unless something is done about the increase in spending on entitlement programs such as Social Security and Medicare.
None of those are under consideration anymore.
“There’s no real deficit reduction here,” said G. William Hoag-land, a Republican and former chief of staff of the Senate Budget Committee. “That’s the difference between 2011 and 2013.”
In 2011, a government default was averted, but the near miss nearly derailed the recovery. Consumer confidence plunged to its lowest point since the depths of the financial crisis. Hiring stalled. The Standard & Poor’s 500-stock index dropped more than 10 percent.
“It did grave, absurdly unnecessary damage to the economy,” Palmieri said.
Democrats on Capitol Hill are not eager to see the president take a leading role in any deal-making to keep the government open or to negotiate a new federal debt ceiling.
In the view of many Democrats, Obama has shown that he has neither the appetite nor the aptitude for such delicate talks. They say, for instance, that he gave away too much in earlier rounds, which produced — among other things — the current arrangement under which discretionary spending is being affected by automatic spending cuts known as the sequester.
When the White House raised the possibility of assembling congressional leaders at the White House last week, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid quickly extinguished that idea, said Democratic sources. Congressional Democrats think the best place for Obama, at least for now, may be on the golf course, where he was Saturday.
Republicans have made their own reckonings with the past, and that is one reason so many — particularly newer members of Congress — are willing to risk so much in what by all appearances is a futile effort to block or stall the health care law.
Sunday marked the fifth anniversary of a moment of brinkmanship that occurred in the waning days of George W. Bush’s presidency. On that day, the House rejected a $700 billion rescue plan for the nation’s financial system, sending the stock market into a tailspin at a moment of high anxiety.
Although the bill passed a few days later, anger about the bailout — known as the Troubled Assets Relief Program — became a rallying point for the populist right, and helped light the fire that ultimately became the tea party movement. It also helped end the careers of some of the establishment Republicans who supported it.
One of those elected in the backlash is Sen. Mike Lee of Utah, a leader in the drive to do what it takes to stop the health care law, even if it risks a government shutdown or a default on U.S. debt.
Also missing from the barricades are some of the influential figures who helped resolve the past standoffs.
In late 2010, shortly after the Republicans’ triumph in the midterm elections, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and Vice President Joe Biden negotiated an agreement to extend the Bush-era tax cuts for two years.
In the final days of 2012, the duo teamed up again to cut the deal that pulled the government back from the so-called fiscal cliff, a combination of $500 billion in tax increases and across-the-board spending cuts that were set to take effect in the new year.
Both have been all but invisible lately.
Biden has no room to maneuver, because Obama has insisted that he will not negotiate. McConnell is believed to be constrained by the fact that he is running for re-election and is facing a tea party challenger.
But the minority leader has bristled at the flamboyant obstructionism of freshman Sen. Ted Cruz and there still may be a role for McConnell to play.
“I don’t intend to participate in any discussion, publicly or privately, that raises taxes or spends more than current law,” McConnell told The New York Times recently — a statement that had skirted the issues immediately at hand.
Rep. Jim McGovern was a congressional staffer the last time the government shut down, in 1995.
To him, those are starting to look like good times.
“I don’t want to sound like I’m nostalgic for Newt Gingrich,” he said of the flame-throwing former House speaker, “but the bottom line was by comparison he seemed more reasonable.”