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Michael Gerson: The politics of paralysis

Published: September 18, 2013
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Recently overheard from a senior House Republican, commenting on prospects for a budget agreement: “At this point we're hoping Vladimir Putin comes up with a plan.”

It is a summary of the state of Barack Obama's second term.

The president's near humiliation on a Syrian use-of-force resolution indicated a dangerously shallow reservoir of trust and good will on Capitol Hill. Democrats were amazed that Obama had forced a major political battle with no plan for winning it. The White House operation seemed badly off its game. Congressional relationships that had gone untended for years could not be suddenly strengthened in a final push. In Obama's fifth year in office, the legislative base of his party seemed prepared to participate (along with Republicans) in the devastation of his presidency.

Putin threw Obama a lifeline, which has come with Russian strings attached. But it is the domestic implications that concern us here. The president enters a season of congressional confrontation fresh from an ill-conceived legislative effort that left even his supporters in disbelief.

The remainder of legislative time and attention that hasn't been spent on Syria this year will now be consumed by the budget and debt-ceiling debates — in which the best possible outcome is the avoidance of self-inflicted wounds. Republican leaders seem prepared to combine the continuing resolution and debt-ceiling increase, extend both for a year with the budget at level spending, and impose a one-year delay in implementing Obamacare. They won't get the last part — Obama would veto anything including it -- but the Republican base insists.

The Obama administration, in return, offers … nothing. It is continuing the practice of starting a negotiation process by refusing to negotiate.

Coming to an eventual compromise between one side that demands the moon and the other side that demands and offers nothing at all won't be easy. The protection of Obamacare is the one “red line” the administration holds absolutely sacred. But conservatives sense opportunity in a weakened president and a deeply unpopular law. And Speaker John Boehner's room to maneuver is extremely limited by a small faction of his party that is just big enough to paralyze him. It is a recipe for confidence-shaking, market-spooking, down-to-the-wire confrontation.

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