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Rifts Within Both Parties Test Leaders in Budget Fight
WASHINGTON — On one level, the budget showdown that continued to play out here on Wednesday is all about the balance of power between the two parties, a question of whether President Obama has regained his footing and can still control the direction of the country or whether Speaker John A. Boehner and the Republicans are nowcalling the shots.
But on another, it is a test of each man’s ability to weather challenges inside his own party.
The outcome will help determine whether Mr. Boehner is leading his party or following the demands of the Tea Party movement. For Mr. Obama, it is the biggest test yet of whether he can reposition himself as a pragmatic leader who can recapture the political center and keep liberalssufficiently energized to help him win re-election.
The budget impasse intensified Wednesday, and the president invited Mr. Boehner and the Senate majority leader, Harry Reid, for a late-night Oval Office meeting. Mr. Obama walked into the White House briefing room at 10:45 p.m., not to announce a deal, but to ask both sides to “keep on pounding away at this thing.”
“I remain confident,” he said,“that if we’re serious about getting something done, we should be able to complete a deal and get it passed and avert a shutdown. But it’s going to require a sufficient sense of urgency from all parties involved.”
A day of talks seemed to do little to avert a collision between Democrats and Republicans that could result in a government shutdown on Saturday. Each side maneuvered to ensure the otherwould be blamed if a shutdown occurred.
The negotiations came down to a small amount of money in the context of a $3.5 trillion budget — roughly $7 billion — but were complicated by deeper policy disputes between the parties over spending related to abortion services, health care and the environment.
“This is the first major point where everybody’s trying to understand what the new dynamic is,”said David Winston, a Republican pollster who has advised Congressional leaders for years. “Ultimately, the goal is to win, not to just find yourself in a fight.”
The president and the speaker have much to gain — yet perhaps even more to lose — if the government closes down on their watch. Their working relationship has fluctuated somewhere between nonexistent and cordial during the first threemonths of divided government.
But amid their respective chest-thumping, with Mr. Obama accusing Republicans of injecting politics into the debate and Mr. Boehner suggesting that the president has failed to lead, the political fortunes of both men are oddly intertwined. Their approaches set the stage for a test of their leadership that will provide a roadmap for how they will handle even bigger budgetfights ahead.
Mr. Obama sought to present himself in the past few days as the man of reason and compromise, a disappointed father figure having to mediate a dispute between two squabbling siblings. It was the latest example of a strategy he has turned to since Democrats experienced a drubbing in the midterm elections last year and he pivots toward his re-election campaign.
“When was the lasttime you just got your way?” Mr. Obama said in an appearance in Pennsylvania on Wednesday, comparing the budget dispute to an effort by a married couple to work out its differences. “That’s not the way it works, right? The fact is you have to make compromises.”
The president is so intent on trying to elevate himself over the partisan feuds of the day that he sometimes refers to Democrats in thethird person, as though he is not the leader of the party. It remains an open question whether the distance he seeks to place between himself and Democrats on Capitol Hill — his own version of triangulation — will attract independent voters or antagonize members of his party.
“Republicans and Democrats both start making a lot of speeches,” Mr. Obama said. “Usually the Democrats blame the...
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