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Washington Fiscal Impasse: To Talk or Not To Talk

House Speaker John Boehner, joined by members of the Republican Caucus, demands that the White House and congressional Democrats negotiate with congressional Republicans about ways to re-open the government and address criticisms of the nation's new health care law, Oct. 4, 2013.
Washington’s fiscal impasse has caused a government shutdown and threatens a U.S. debt default. It also has forced lawmakers to grapple with issues of democratic governance: specifically, how to fulfill basic duties in a politically divided legislature. Much of the fury on Capitol Hill revolves around whether the current standoff should be resolved through negotiations and compromise between Democrats and Republicans.

Dialogue - it is how differences are supposed to be resolved. But are negotiations appropriate to resolve America’s current fiscal crises? The speaker of the Republican-led House of Representatives, John Boehner, says yes.

“The American people expect, when their leaders have differences and we are in a time of crisis, that we will sit down and at least have a conversation. Really, Mr. President, it is time to have that conversation before our economy is put further at risk," said Boehner.

Boehner wants President Barack Obama and congressional Democrats to consider Republican stipulations for extending federal funding and raising the U.S. borrowing limit. Democrats respond that keeping the government open and paying the nation’s bills are in both political parties’ interest, and should not be subject to partisan ransom.

Furthermore, according to Democrats, negotiations and compromise already have taken place. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid says he and Speaker Boehner had discussions months ago about the need to keep the federal government running beyond October 1. Reid says he reluctantly agreed to lower funding levels demanded by Republicans in order to make the bill palatable to them and to avoid a shutdown. On the Senate floor Monday, Reid described his earlier conversations with Boehner:

“I agreed to his [lower funding] number. It was very hard to do for we in the Democratic caucus. But it was his [Boehner’s] idea, not my idea. All this talk about ‘not negotiating’. That is what that was all about," said Reid.

In a television interview Sunday, Boehner acknowledged his discussions with Reid prior to the government shutdown. The speaker said a core group of House Republicans was not satisfied with Reid’s concession, and demanded measures to weaken President Obama’s health care law be included in the fight over government funding.

But that was then and this is now, according to the Senate’s top Republican, Mitch McConnell, who says Congress finds itself at an impasse, and only dialogue between the two parties can resolve it.

“The American people have given us divided government. They gave us a Republican House and a Democratic Senate. That means negotiation is not a luxury. It is a necessity. There is a time for politics, and there is a time for sitting down like adults and working things out," said McConnell.

Democrats suggest a different path: that the House vote on a condition-free funding bill already approved by the Senate. So far, Speaker Boehner has refused to allow the bill to come to the floor for a vote. It is widely believed that enough moderate House Republicans would join with Democrats to ensure passage. As a result, Democrats question the need for negotiations to end the government shutdown when a solution already exists.

But President Obama and Democrats are pressing a larger point: that partisan concerns must not bring the government to a halt. Senator Chris Murphy puts it this way:

“This place just cannot operate if, in order to keep the government open for six weeks, we have to satisfy everybody’s personal political agendas. If all 100 senators had to get their particular non-budgetary political points settled as a requirement of passing a continuing resolution [temporary funding bill], this place would absolutely collapse," said Murphy.

With non-essential government operations halted and a debt crisis looming, not only are American lawmakers deadlocked on a solution, for now they are also unable to agree on a path for ultimately arriving at one.