Countdown to Shutdown: A Primer on Where Budget Wrangling Stands

We're right where we were Friday: Republicans want to make big changes to Obamacare in return for funding the government, Democrats refuse, and there's no end in sight.
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Speaker John Boehner playfully pumps his fist at the U.S. Capitol in Washington on Saturday. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

As Monday dawns, there's no sign that Congress is any closer to a deal that will avert a government shutdown at midnight. Despite a flurry of activity over the weekend, the landscape is essentially the same as it was at the end of the day Friday: Republicans want to seriously scale back the Affordable Care Act in exchange for funding the government, Democrats won't allow it, there are no real negotiations in progress, and that means a closure is all but inevitable. In fact, many members of Congress are resigned to that conclusion. Here's a guide to what happened the last two days and what to expect today.

Wasn't there some progress over the weekend?

There was plenty of movement, but no real progress. On Friday, the Senate passed a continuing resolution to fund the government. But first, they stripped out the House's stipulation that Obamacare be defunded. That sent the bill back to the House. Just after midnight on Sunday -- after a contentious debate, and apparently some drinking -- the House passed a resolution to fund the government but delay Obamacare for a year and repeal a tax on medical devices. Both votes were basically along party lines: 17 Democrats voted to repeal the tax; two Democrats voted for the delay, with two Republicans voting against.

Will the Senate just go along and pass the bill?

It's almost out of the question. Even before the House voted, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid rejected their bill as "pointless." “We continue to be willing to debate these issues in a calm and rational atmosphere," the Nevada Democrat said. "But the American people will not be extorted by Tea Party anarchists.” The chances of Democrats accepting the one-year delay are basically zero. Shutdown or no, the insurance exchanges central to the law are kicking in this week, meaning a delay would be a logistical nightmare. And Democrats see the delay as simply the setup for later repeal efforts -- not unreasonably: Republicans have (1) worried publicly that once the law is in place, it will be impossible to repeal, giving Democrats an incentive to resist any slowdown; and (2) described delay as prelude to elimination, as Mitt Romney did in an interview with CNN on Friday.

What about the medical-device tax, though?

Some Republicans hope Reid would accept a deal that eliminated the delay but accepted the repeal of the medical-device tax. That would avoid seriously undermining the health-care law, but allow Republicans to save face with the conservative base (at least theoretically). Yet Democrats have remained unified and shown little appetite for eliminating the tax, which would produce an estimated $29 billion in revenue over 10 years. Of course, even if the Senate did pass both measures, President Obama has vowed to veto them, so it's largely irrelevant.

If this is doomed to fail, why did Republicans do it?

House GOP leaders have decided they'd rather gamble on the uncertain political blowback from a shutdown than incur the certain wrath of conservatives in their caucus and base by backing down. While Speaker John Boehner has said repeatedly that neither he nor the American people want a shutdown, he's given in to conservative hardliners in his caucus. Majority Leader Eric Cantor made that choice explicit: “We’ve had enough of the disunity in our party .... The headlines are Republicans fighting Republicans. This will unite us. This protects the people who sent us here from Obamacare.” Yet it's not clear even this will placate the far right. Writing on the popular conservative site RedState, Daniel Horowitz blasted the bill the House passed Sunday as weak tea.

What happens now?

The Senate was gone for the weekend, but will reconvene Monday and take up the House bill -- but that isn't scheduled until 2 p.m., when there are 10 hours left to shutdown. Barring an unforeseen deal or a major blink from the Democrats, the Senate will table the tax repeal and the delay and send the funding resolution back to the House -- in other words, the exact same language the Senate sent the House on Friday. Unless House conservatives blink, or unless Boehner is willing to pass this so-called "clean CR" with Democratic support, the government will close.

That's it? There's no Plan C?

Republican House Whip Kevin McCarthy said on Sunday there might be time for a third shot at funding the government: The House could pass a resolution that includes other steps, like eliminating a subsidy for congressional staffers to buy insurance. But such a move would have to be pulled off in extremely short order, and would still presumably cross Democrats' red line of a clean CR or nothing. Both houses could also pass a resolution that would fund the government for a few days, staving off shutdown and giving Congress more time to thrash out a deal.

And if they don't?

The familiar parade of horribles will ensue: most federal employees sent home, national parks closed, passport applications frozen, etc. (Andrew Cohen has more on how the law works, and why it costs more to shut the government down and reopen it than it does to keep it open.) Then it will be a question, once more, of who blinks first to reopen the government.

What about the debt ceiling?

That's an entirely different, and probably more dangerous, matter. Some commentators think a shutdown could hasten a clean and easy increase in the debt ceiling, but it's not clear why, nor are there any visible signs of progress toward a debt-ceiling deal. Brace yourselves: October could be very scary well before Halloween.

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David A. Graham

David Graham is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, where he oversees the Politics Channel. He previously reported for Newsweek, The Wall Street Journal, and The National.

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