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The Republican Fever Is Down. It Hasn't Broken Yet.

Getty Images: Chip Somodevilla

The Republican fever is starting to come down. It hasn’t broken yet.

Members of the Senate GOP on Friday met with President Obama, just as House Republicans had done one day before. And like their House counterparts, they sketched out an idea for ending the current political impasse—so that the federal government reopens and, no less important, so that the Treasury Department gets new borrowing authority to pay incoming bills.

Exactly what this proposal would entail is not clear. Its chief proponent, Senator Susan Collins of Maine, didn’t provide a lot of details. She and her allies may not even know what they want. But, based on media accounts and assorted Washington sources, the plan would appear to involve some set of modest-sounding policy concessions—like delay or reduction of Obamacare’s medical device tax—and “clean” agreements to finance the government and raise the debt ceiling. The agreement might also set in motion a new set of bipartisan fiscal talks, designed to reduce the long-term deficit while scaling back immediate spending cuts from the sequester.

Assuming those details are right, Senate Republicans are offering more concessions and demanding less in return their House counterparts were. As of Friday, at least, Republicans were proposing to give the government only another six weeks’ of borrowing authority. And while they were talking about re-opening the government, they had not offered to do so immediately and seemed to make funding  conditional on Obama agreeing to talks that would result in some combination of entitlement cuts. This may help explain why Obama, who essentially rejected the House proposal, seemed less hostile to what Senate Republicans had in mind.

Yes, the information is all hazy and thinly sourced. That includes what I’m getting from people I know, as well as what you’re reading elsewhere. Everything seems to be in flux and even the elected officials in the middle of talks aren't always sure what's on the table. At one point, Republican Senator John McCain told Politico that President Obama “doesn’t quite understand [the House] proposal” and then added “nor do I.”

Still, it’s clear Senate Republicans are desperate to get past this episode. It's also clear why.

That NBC/Wall Street Journal poll from Thursday, the one that caused such a ruckus, merely confirmed in public what pollsters for both parties were saying privately already: The shutdown has been a political disaster for Republicans. House Republicans from deeply conservative districts may not have to worry about this, since their constituents are predominantly those who would do anything to fight the White House. But House Republicans from more moderate districts worry. So do most Republican Senators, who don’t have the luxury of staying with within conveniently gerrymandered lines. And they are saying so publicly. “The House Republicans so far don’t want to get rid of the shutdown,” Arizona Senator Jeff Flake told National Review's Jonathan Strong. “I don’t know in what world we’re faring well under the shutdown, in terms of policy or politics.”

But if Senate Republicans are more eager to deal, they seem not quite ready to let go of the idea that it’s ok to use the debt ceiling as leverage for policy concessions. Just consider these comments from Senator Lindsey Graham from South Carolina, one of the more sensible Republicans around, as relayed by Strong in National Review:

Graham says at one point he told Obama that he can’t expect Congress to surrender its constitutional authority on spending matters.

“I understand where you’re coming from, protecting the presidency,” Graham says, characterizing his remarks to Obama, “but you can’t tell the Congress, ‘You will reopen the government, you will pass a continuing resolution and you will pass the debt ceiling, and then I will talk to you.’”

“As a body, we can’t give that authority away. We can’t be told by the executive branch of the government that ‘you have to do what I say when it comes to how you fund the government and raising the debt ceiling.’ That’s not healthy for future Congresses. The whole check and balance situation will be undermined there,” Graham adds.

It’s the same basic sentiment driving House Republicans, as David Drucker explains in the Washington Examiner:

The issue isn't whether House Republicans should accept a bad deal to raise the federal borrowing limit and ensure the U.S. does not default on its $16.7 trillion debt. Republicans are concerned that the refusal of President Obama and Senate Democrats to negotiate those issues with Republicans would establish a precedent making it impossible to haggle over future debt limit increases or to use them as leverage in other policy negotiations.

That has only reaffirmed to House Republican leaders -- who wanted to avoid a government shutdown -- that they have no choice but to stand their ground on the debt ceiling. Surrounded by a hostile White House and Senate, and with few legislative avenues beyond borrowing and spending bills to impose their agenda, Republicans said capitulating to Obama would cede to Democrats the only institutional authority Republicans possess. 

Lindsey Graham’s suggestion that Obama would upset the constitutional system of checks and balances has it exactly backwards. Traditionally, the executive and legislative branches negotiated fiscal policy without these kinds of threats. And minority parties still had plenty of leverage. It's the reason Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush didn't get bigger tax cuts, and Bill Clinton couldn't get more federal money for education. The problem for Republicans is that they want more leverage than their predecessors had. They want the power to act like they control both houses of Congress, along with the presidency, even though they control only the House.

Collins’ proposal, or something like it, may yet be the basis of the deal that eventually restores government funding and raises the debt ceiling. As Obama reportedly said in the White House meeting, there is "space for trading." But it will only work if the trades take place in the context of normal fiscal negoatitions. His message on this has been consistent and it has been right. The Republicans can get concessions on all kinds of things—entitlements, taxes, even Obamacare. But they can’t get more concessions by threatening to wreak economic havoc. Until Republicans accept that, prospects for agreement seem slim.