Republicans and Democrats have spent months laying the groundwork for this moment: both parties at seemingly irreconcilable differences and a government shutdown looming.
The arguments from each have created a political blame universe forming the logic of who wins and loses if the talks fail.
But as it comes down to the final stretch, who will blink? Will Republican House Speaker John Boehner leave the right wing flank of his caucus behind, securing a deal with Democratic votes? Or will President Obama, for instance, sell out environmentalists on strict EPA climate change regulations, or pressure Senate Democrats to back more significant cuts?
Or, as the two parties careen towards each other in the ultimate game of political chicken, will neither flinch, resulting in a cataclysmic shutdown crash that damages both parties, even if one more than the other?
The Republicans argue they passed a spending bill all the way back on Feb. 19, only to watch the Senate dawdle since then.
The Democrats argue they’re supporting spending cuts over half of what Republicans proposed, $33 billion to their $61 billion.
Republicans say the final deal must include at least some of the policy riders in their bill, a long list that includes defunding Obamacare, a slew of strict EPA regulations, Planned Parenthood and National Public Radio, among others.
Democrats say most of those are non-starters, and that a six-month spending bill isn’t the vehicle for a broad ideological battle.
Behind Boehner, Obama and Reid are the internal dynamics of their respective camps.
Boehner faces a restive right flank that isn’t overly concerned about a shutdown. At a contentious conference meeting early Tuesday, for instance, the conservatives continued to push for all, or nearly all, of the cuts and riders in H.R. 1.
Insiders say Rep. Mike Pence is leading the charge. His spokesman, Matt Lloyd, says Pence thinks Republicans ought to draw the line at “$61 billion in budget cuts, defunding Planned Parenthood and defunding ObamaCare.”
Egging on shutdown among the Democrats is the widespread, but not unanimous belief it will help their party politically.
Former Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean put it best when he said “If I was head of DNC, I would be quietly rooting for” a shutdown; “I know who’s going to get blamed – we’ve been down this road before.”
On the other hand, Obama’s political team is reportedly worried about the impact it would have on the image they’re trying to paint of him as a grown-up above the fray.
Refereeing the titanic clash are the media, although making any actual call on who’s to blame is tough because the arguments are entirely subjective and rest on contrived conceptions of reasonableness.
That puts news reporters in a tough position since most of them can’t go there. It’s especially so since neither side has allowed themselves to be easily caricatured as unreasonable like former House Speaker Newt Gingrich did when he threw a “temper tantrum” deplaning Air Force One.
Muddying the waters are the conflicting sets of facts from each party. Most of the negotiations have been conducted by a small set of staffers, and leaks have been few. The posturing by party leaders in the meantime has been only vaguely related to the actual talks.
Welcome to the spending cuts standoff, 2011 edition.