WASHINGTON - A crazy thing is happening in shuttered, dysfunctional Washington: Democrats are pushing back.
This phenomenon is so novel and disorienting that many Republicans in Congress, especially the tea party bullies, seem unable to grasp what's going on. They keep expecting President Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to fold like a cheap suit because, well, such a thing has happened before. I guess it's understandable that the GOP might have forgotten the difference between bluffing and actually holding a winning hand.
Late last week, Reid began demanding that Republicans not only reopen the government and raise the debt ceiling but that they also make concessions on the draconian, irrational-by-design budget cuts known as sequestration. In political terms, he is demanding that the GOP pay a price for putting the country through all this needless drama.
Suddenly, Republicans who thought it was fine to hold the government and the economy hostage in order to nullify a duly enacted law -- the Affordable Care Act -- are shocked that Democrats would even suggest tampering with another duly enacted law: the Budget Control Act of 2011, which established the "sequester" cuts.
Was Reid moving the goal posts? Of course he was. That's what negotiators do when they have the upper hand.
It seemed clear from the beginning that House Republicans had overreached by shutting down the government in an attempt to block the health insurance reforms popularly known as Obamacare. For one thing, many of the Affordable Care Act's provisions were already in force. For another, any residual questions about the law had been thoroughly litigated in last year's election.
Indeed, an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll released Thursday pronounced a devastating verdict: Fifty-three percent of those surveyed blamed Republicans for the shutdown, as opposed to 31 percent who blamed Obama -- a worse pounding for the GOP than the party suffered when Newt Gingrich shut down the government during the Clinton administration. A separate survey by Gallup showed the Republican Party with an approval rating of just 28 percent, the lowest the firm has ever measured for either party.
Such stunning numbers not only threaten to dash the GOP's hopes of winning control of the Senate next year but also challenge the party's ability to hold its majority in the House.
So there's no question who's winning and who's losing. Still, it's refreshing to see Democrats act accordingly.
The standard pattern since Republicans captured the House in 2010 goes something like this: House Speaker John Boehner makes outrageous demands. Obama negotiates a "compromise" package heavily weighted toward Republican priorities, but Boehner can't deliver his caucus. Fearful that tea party vandals might burn down the house, Democrats end up agreeing to a short-term deal that gives the GOP much of what it wants.
It is understandable that the activist Republican base might think victory through blackmail was the natural order of things. It's not. It's a distortion of American democracy that weakens the nation, and it has to end.
The fact that the GOP controls the House means that its views cannot be ignored. But the fact that Democrats control the Senate and the White House means that Republicans have no right to expect that they will always get their way. This concept of basic fairness is the sort of thing most of us learned in second grade. Apparently, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, was not paying attention.
Before the tea party tantrum that caused the shutdown, Democrats had already agreed to sequester-level government funding of $986 billion -- the number that Republicans insisted on. Because of sequestration, funding will suffer a further $21 billion cut in January. Last week, as the Senate struggled to clean up the mess that the House majority had made, Reid said hold on a minute.
Senate Democrats now want only a brief extension at the sequester level, along with further negotiations that could raise government funding closer to $1.058 trillion, the number they originally sought.
Republicans reacted with shock and horror, most of it feigned. This is the way politics is supposed to work. Obama and Reid are now in a position to win gracefully by compromising on their new spending demands. Republicans could then portray the outcome as something other than a rout -- and hope the focus on spending makes the hypercaffeinated GOP base forget about that whole Obamacare-is-the-devil thing.
This should be a lesson: When you negotiate from strength, you're not only helping yourself. You're helping your adversary too.
Eugene Robinson is a columnist for The Washington Post.