The White House and Congress have, oh, nine days (or nine days, eight hours, and counting if you follow National Journal's ominous Shutdown Timer) to agree on how to cut federal spending for the fiscal year ending in September. If they don't reach a consensus by March 4, the government will run out of money for non-essential operations and partially shut down, potentially sidelining hundreds of thousands of federal workers and contractors, disrupting certain government services, and, coming as it would during tax filing season, delaying tax refunds. Republicans who campaigned on smaller government in November helped shuttle a bill lowering spending by $61 billion through the GOP-controlled House, but the legislation faces fierce opposition in the Democratic-led Senate.
The government last shut down 15 years ago when President Bill Clinton and Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich sparred over spending (if you're a West Wing fan, you may recall a more recent shutdown in 2003, during Episode 96).
Washington is currently engaged in what the Atlanta Journal-Constitution's Jamie Dupree calls "government shutdown chicken." The Republicans want to cut spending while the Democrats want to keep spending at current levels, and each side is daring the other to shut down the government and risk public censure. The big unknown in this game of chicken is who the public will blame if a shutdown comes to pass. With March 4 just around the corner, and Congress not even in session until next week, it seems fair to ask: Is our government actually about to shut down? The arguments:
Richard Cowan and Alister Bull at Reuters report that the risk of a shutdown lessened on Tuesday when Speaker of the House John Boehner said that the House would, if need be, pass a 30-day extension to keep the government running. But any deal would be complicated by the fact that Boehner wants the stop-gap measure to cut spending, which Democrats oppose. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, for his part, has said the country can't afford a shutdown given the fragile economic recovery, and the White House has expressed similar sentiments. Cowan and Bull add that Republicans remember all too well how voters blamed them for interfering with government benefits and services when the government shut down for three weeks in 1995-96.
Roger Simon argues that Republicans don't want to risk their popularity in the 2012 elections over a shutdown, even though the public is on their side about the need to reduce government spending. That calculation, Simon says, "is about the only thing that might scare them into a compromise with Democrats."
Clive Crook at The Financial Times thinks "Washington is quarrelling its way to a government shutdown." In fact, he imagines President Obama's advisers are telling him that the White House could win back swing voters in the 2012 elections if the government shuts down, financial markets reel, and Americans fault Republicans. "Avoiding a fiscal meltdown would be good for 2012 purposes," Crook states. "Having one that could be blamed on Republicans would be perfect. What a way to run a country."
Politico's Jonathan Allen and John Bresnahan explain why each party thinks it could win the PR battle in a government shutdown. Some Republicans say that unlike 15 years ago, many Americans want to reduce government spending and address the deficit, and have less sympathy for the public sector. They also point out that Boehner and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell could better navigate a shutdown than Gingrich. Democrats, meanwhile, believe that in the event of a shutdown they can portray themselves as the "party of reason and moderation" and the "tea party-driven House Republican conference" as "radical, reckless and not ready for prime time."