WASHINGTON - Tentative steps toward budget talks between President Obama and Republicans could be the opening that ends Washington's latest stalemate. But it would be the kind of temporary patch that Obama has always railed against - the propensity for Washington to govern from crisis to short-term crisis.
Here's where Obama has stood: He would talk to Republicans about deficits, health care, entitlements, and taxes only after they reopen the government fully and increase the nation's borrowing authority to avoid a potentially calamitous default.
Here's the fillip he added this week: He'll talk even if extending the debt ceiling and reopening the government are designed to last just a few weeks.
On Thursday, House Speaker John A. Boehner (R., Ohio) countered by proposing a six-week extension of the debt ceiling. The White House held fast to its insistence that the partial government shutdown needed to end as well, and indicated that a debt-ceiling extension alone would not guarantee Obama's participation in budget negotiations. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D., Nev.) was even more steadfast. Asked whether he would negotiate during a shutdown, he said: "Not going to happen."
After House Republican leaders met with Obama at the White House on Thursday evening, both sides declared no deal was at hand. But the contours of a stopgap plan appeared to be taking shape.
If all sides agree with this kick-the-can-down-the-road strategy, Obama could be negotiating with crucial deadlines once again hanging over his head. Instead of freeing himself from the threat of an unprecedented government default - a key principle in his no-negotiations stance - Obama would be leaving it out there once again for Republicans to employ as leverage.
For Republicans, it would mean abandoning for now their demand that Obama agree to halt or delay his signature health-care law, the issue that once was at the heart of the shutdown.
The door opened Tuesday when Obama was asked at a news conference whether he would be willing to hold talks in the midst of a government funding agreement and a debt-ceiling increase of short duration. "Absolutely," Obama replied. Later, he added: "If they want to do that, reopen the government. Extend the debt ceiling. If they can't do it for a long time, do it for the period of time in which these negotiations are taking place."
Obama's stance begs a question: If he is willing to hold talks during a short-term respite, why didn't he simply start negotiating a month ago?
The White House position is that as long as Republicans wanted to use the debt ceiling and the threat of a shutdown to dismantle or delay the health-care law, that was nonnegotiable. What's more, Obama has demanded a debt-ceiling increase without strings attached, arguing that he wants to establish a principle that the nation's credit is not a bargaining chip.
White House officials maintain that Obama will continue to insist that he won't negotiate on the debt ceiling.
That would present the president with a distinction that might be difficult to pry apart: negotiating to finance government operations for 2014 or to reopen the government but not attaching conditions to an increase in the debt ceiling, both of which would require simultaneous attention.
What gets negotiated is also at issue. In an opinion article in the Wall Street Journal on Wednesday, House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R., Wis.) proposed that both sides could embrace some proposals contained in Obama's most recent budget, including higher premiums for wealthier Medicare beneficiaries and greater contributions by federal employees to their retirement. But Obama has consistently insisted on higher tax revenue as well, a demand Republicans have rejected.
The opening, if it ends up being one, came as the uncertainty over how the politics of the stalemate would play had unsettled the White House and congressional Republicans. Moderate Republicans were calling for both sides to temper their stands.