Few winners from Washington's debt meltdown

WASHINGTON (AFP) - Almost no one will limp off the scorched earth of Washington's latest political debacle boasting of a clear win.

Instead, the aftermath of a debt default near miss and 16-day government shutdown is turning into a game of "Who is the biggest loser?"

Republicans trashed their own political brand, President Barack Obama saw his approval ratings sink, and America flirted with squandering its reputation as the world's financial safe haven.

"There are no winners here," said White House spokesman Jay Carney. For once, the spin reflected political reality.

Politicians, rarely popular, emerged from the crisis with their pariah status enhanced. America's national mood, drained of quintessential optimism by a decade of war and recession, darkened a little more.

"An anti-incumbent feeling... has only strengthened," said Lara Brown of the Graduate School of Political Management at The George Washington University.

"There is a desire, pretty much, to throw out all of the Washington establishment."

A Gallup poll last week put Congress's approval rating at 11 percent and a Pew Research survey found 81 percent of Americans dissatisfied with their country's direction.

The Republican Party, yet to fix its habit of alienating young, women and minority voters which cost it last year's presidential election took the most stinging blow.

Bristling with bravado, House Republicans picked the shutdown and debt ceiling fight as a way to force the president to defund or delay his health law, so-called Obamacare.

They failed on both counts and Mr Obama stood firm on not being held to "ransom" on raising borrowing authority so America could pay its bills.

In the process, Republicans tore internal divisions even wider.

Even conservative senators are disdainful of the nihilistic tactics of their House brethren.

"The way we're behaving and the path we've taken over the last couple of weeks leads to a marginalised party in the eyes of the American people, a form of conservatism that is probably beyond what the market would bear," said Senator Lindsey Graham.

House Speaker John Boehner, unable to control his raging caucus, became almost a pitiful figure and may now be party leader in name only.

Mr Obama, weakened in the eyes of the world, can at least say he stood on principle.

But the short-term nature of the government funding compromise agreed on Wednesday will store up a future political battle.

Mr Obama was embarrassed by having to cancel an important Asia trip during the standoff - after already seeping global authority over his handling of Syria.

But White House aides were satisfied the president established that neither he nor future presidents will bargain with the full faith and credit of the United States.

The most vitriolic political standoff of his crisis-strewn presidency however exhausted an already stretched White House.

"The president got what he wanted so I guess he is a winner," said James Thurber, professor of government at American University.

"But he also has a situation where we are going to have another major confrontation in December."

The days when Mr Obama pledged to cleanse the partisan swamp seem like ancient history.

And the poison choking Washington also seems certain to leave Mr Obama's ambitious second-term agenda stillborn.

"Obama has weakened the Republican Party but not materially improved his position to advance an affirmative agenda," said Brookings Institution scholar Thomas Mann.

The Republican Party meanwhile has yet to disarm its Fifth Column: the Tea Party faction has alienated centrists, moderates and even other Republicans.

Only 30 percent of Americans had a favourable opinion of the ultra-conservative group, according to the Pew Poll.

But the Tea Party is unlikely to bow to Mr Obama despite its defeat.

And a faction bent on the destruction of the political consensus in Washington - might consider it wins by losing.

That certainly is the case for freshman Senator Ted Cruz, who drove the Obamacare fight, championed radicals in the House and violated the clubby traditions of the US Senate.

His reward was to emerge as indisputable champion of the far right, as he woos the party's activist base before a possible presidential primary run in 2016.

One institution that did win credit was the US Senate, as venerable leaders Democrat Harry Reid and Republican Mitch McConnell reached across angry divides to compromise.

Mr Reid can pose as the standard bearer who kept his troops in line, saved Obamacare, outmaneuvered Mr Boehner and faced down the Tea Party.

He may have also enhanced Democratic hopes of keeping the Senate in 2014.

Mr McConnell is in a tougher spot, after acting in the national interest by helping to stave off default.

Conservative activists in his Kentucky Republican primary next year may bristle at the way he clipped the Tea Party's wings, lending his actions the tint of political courage.

A new report by ratings firm Standard & Poor's made clear that the United States itself was a victim of the impasse.

Some US$24 billion (S$30 billion) drained from the economy and growth will fade in the fourth quarter, it said.

Another ratings firm, Fitch, put Washington on notice of a possible downgrade of its AAA credit rating.

Top foreign lenders like China meanwhile lambasted Washington for sliding to the brink of a default that would have damaged the global economy.

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.