Politico’s David Rogers Owning the Budget Beat

First stop in following the negotiations

Is there anyone doing as good a job tracking federal budget negotiations as Politico’s David Rogers? The man’s been a complete machine these last few weeks, reporting not just on every infuriating meeting between aides and legislators—and the grandstanding press conferences that follow them—but explaining in clear, muscular prose the policy differences, the precise politicking taking place, and the historical perspective. For his latest, see Politico’s “John Boehner’s new number to avert government shutdown: $39 billion.”

Rogers’s budget update from yesterday was an exercise in just how this story should be reported. Where a number of reports run in major papers of the last few weeks have fallen into the he-said she-said trap—the main sayers being Boehner, Reid, and Obama—Rogers never lets a comment hang. He shows us why “he” said this and “she” said that. And he explains where those comments fit in the overall debate taking place. Here’s just one example of Rogers at work:

“I like the president personally. We get along well,” Boehner had told reporters following an afternoon meeting of the Republican Conference. “But the president, he didn’t lead on last year’s budget. And clearly, he’s not leading on this year’s budget.”

The speaker’s comments came on top of a shot by Republican Conference Chairman Jeb Hensarling that infuriated Democrats by suggesting Obama is more concerned about his reelection campaign budget than the crisis. In fact, persons in both parties said the White House had only stayed removed from the talks Wednesday because of the urging of Boehner’s office—together with Reid’s. And Obama had offered to cancel a trip Wednesday to Pennsylvania, if needed.

The combination of acrimony and distrust—even as all sides move toward a precipice—could be dubbed Washington’s “Guns of April.” All three principals—Obama, Boehner and Reid—have been hurt politically by their own hesitance and weakness, but they have arrived at a point where they must find a way to come together or risk the embarrassment of a shutdown at a time when American troops are in combat overseas.

Rogers then goes on to put the impending government shutdown in its historical context. We’ve seen a number of standalone reports explaining what happened during the 1995-1996 shutdowns as a look at what we face should an agreement not be reached by Friday. Rogers brings the experience of those two shutdowns directly into his report on the current negotiations and highlights the differences between shutdown circumstances then and now—and how those differences have led to other moves in the House. He’s that rare great synthesizer.

This is a major distinction from the 1995 shutdown engineered by House Republicans in a fight with then-President Bill Clinton. And trying to lessen the blow, House Republicans are rushing to the floor Thursday with a bill to put the Pentagon on permanent footing but demanding $12 billion in new spending cuts to keep the rest of the government open for another week.

He’s sharp on the politics too:

Two problems stand out. All budgets are partisan fights, and the new GOP plan — a bold but take-no-prisoners document—will require party discipline just to get through the House next week. Fast behind it in May and June will be the still more difficult fight over expanding Treasury’s borrowing authority to cope with the federal debt.

Thus, the GOP leadership must now put a premium on loyalty to its rank and file, and any compromise—selling out one faction or another—has to be weighed against the fear of breeding distrust among the troops going into the next battle.

The second, more subtle, problem for the GOP is with the construct of the Republican Conference itself. House Democrats have always been more of a coalition of factions, making it easier to break off pieces without losing the whole. But Republicans tend to be more uniform, and once defections begin, experienced floor aides admit the party is harder to control—almost like drywall construction or a spooked cattle herd.

There are a lot of smart people doing smart work to guide us through the budget morass. But Rogers is the one I’ve been turning to first every day. He’s had over thirty years covering Congress—including twenty-four years at the Journal—and it shows. His reports are what happen when that kind of experience and deep sourcing meets Politico’s politically attuned, direct, and brawny style.

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Joel Meares is a former CJR assistant editor. Tags: , , , , ,