The Planned Parenthood funding fight may have garnered the most headlines, but a bigger fight over the budget — prompted by an emboldened President Barack Obama — could just as easily result in a government shutdown later this fall.
The tables have turned from four years ago, when newly minted Speaker John A. Boehner was the one demanding a ransom — and getting it.
The short-lived “Boehner Rule” amounted to a shakedown of Obama: Either he deliver dollar-for-dollar spending cuts for debt-limit increases or the GOP would toss the nation into the first-ever default on its obligations. Obama, facing a potential economic and political catastrophe heading into his re-election, blinked and handed Boehner north of $2 trillion in spending cuts over a decade, including nearly $1 trillion in so-called sequester spending cuts that all sides said they wanted to replace with smarter deficit cuts.
Earnest on Shutdown: GOP ‘Judged by Actions’
Obama likewise blinked during the fiscal cliff deal shortly after winning re-election, giving Republicans permanent tax cut extensions for 99 percent of taxpayers — even for the heirs of billionaires — without meaningful concessions on his demands for more spending in infrastructure, research, education and the like.
Since then, Obama has driven a harder bargain, vowing to never again bow to the Boehner Rule. And this year, he’s the one making ransom demands.
Whereas four years ago Republicans demanded spending cuts or else, now Obama is demanding the GOP reverse some of those cuts or else.
Leverage has shifted in the direction of the short-timer in the West Wing who no longer has to worry about re-election or trying to hold onto a Senate majority by saving the hides of a handful of red-state Democrats.
Obama first made his threat back when he introduced the budget, as CQ Roll Call noted at the time. He has repeated it several times since, and his aides have sent a mountain of veto threats down Pennsylvania Avenue for good measure. Senate Democrats have backed the president by filibustering Republican attempts to bring up appropriations bills without a deal for more spending.
Press Secretary Josh Earnest repeated Monday the threat not to sign a bill keeping sequestration-level spending caps in place — though he noted that applied to a long-term spending bill as opposed to the short-term measure needed by the end of the month.
The only question seems to be whether Democrats will stand firm behind the president when push comes to shove.
Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, who negotiated the 2013 budget deal after the government shutdown drama ended, sounded ready for battle.
“Our principle from the start has been we are not going to allow sequester to go into effect and it has to be equal defense and non-defense and our members are really strong about it,” she said.
And she warned Republicans about pursuing a long-term bill keeping the sequester level spending in place.
“The Republicans would not want to shut down our government over implementing sequestration. It is not a policy this country supports,” she said.
Minority Whip Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., likewise said Democrats were heartened by Obama taking a tougher stand.
“I think the resolve of Senate Democrats is there, and has been throughout this process and I think this resolve is strengthened by the position of the president,” he said. “I think this president has shown repeatedly now in the closing two years of his presidency that he is going to stand up and take on the leaders on the Republican side in a different way. I think it makes a difference.”
Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said Republicans have to give Democrats something.
“The House Republicans are talking about a continuing resolution. We’re demanding … some things. We want equal spending between defense and non-defense. We want to make sure that there are no riders in the legislation of any kind,” Reid said. “Of course, sequestration is something that we need to deal with.”
Democrats, like Republicans, bristle when asked whether their demands amount to a shutdown threat.
Reid noted some Republicans, including Sen. John McCain of Arizona, have also supported doing away with sequester cuts.
Aides also noted it’s not clear yet if Republicans can pass any bill to keep the government open — particularly in the House, without Democratic votes adding to their leverage.
But a senior Republican aide dismissed Democrats’ threats as not credible and predicted they’d end up with nothing close to the $37 billion in additional domestic spending they are seeking.
“The president’s going to shut down the government in order to increase spending? Please! In what universe is that going to sell?” the aide asked.
The GOP aide said the debt limit threat in 2011 was far more serious. “A government shutdown isn’t Armageddon. It’s not even a limited, tactical nuclear exchange, as has been proved how many times?”
Democrats, meanwhile, have for months called on Republicans to sit down and negotiate a budget deal.
But there are no talks yet.
“We’ve heard nothing. Zero,” Reid said.
Niels Lesniewski contributed to this report.