Will a government shutdown make a debt-ceiling deal more likely? Maybe not.

September 30, 2013

Conventional wisdom has cemented around the idea that a (brief) government shutdown beginning at midnight tonight will be a good thing -- in the long run -- for the nation's fiscal future.

A view of Capitol Hill September 29, 2013 in Washington, DC. House Republicans gathered to criticize the Senate for remaining out of session until Monday before considering a House version of a spending bill that could cause a government shutdown on October 1. AFP PHOTO/Brendan SMIALOWSKIBRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images

The argument goes something like this: The cast-iron conservatives were going to force House Speaker John Boehner into a showdown with the White House/Senate Democrats over either the budget or the debt ceiling. A government shutdown isn't good, but it's far less damaging to the global economy than defaulting on the nation's debt. And so, if a government shutdown allows cast-iron conservatives to vent their spleen at President Obama, Harry Reid and, to some extent, Boehner, then it's in the service of the greater good, which is the avoidance of a debt-ceiling showdown.

Here's why that logic might be flawed. Let's say the government shuts down for a week before the White House, Senate Democrats and House Republicans put their heads together to figure out some sort of compromise solution. Almost by default -- see what we did there? -- that deal will be: (1) small- to (at most) medium-bore and (2) some sort of compromise that leaves neither side fully satisfied.

Given that reality, assuming that a shutdown means Congress will vote to raise the debt ceiling may be a bit of a leap. The only way that equation adds up is if the deal Speaker Boeher eventually cuts is regarded as something close to a pure win for conservatives. Otherwise, the 40-45 cast-iron House conservatives could well regard the deal that averts or ends a shutdown as a capitulation. And that means -- wait for it -- they may well use the debt-ceiling deadline as a way to extract more concessions from the White House and their own GOP leaders.

What that means is that we could well be back to the same question in a month's time that we are facing today: Is Boehner willing to buck cast-iron conservatives and bring legislation to the floor of the House that would require a dozen (or a few dozen) Democratic votes to pass? And, would Democrats go along with that plan or would they, as they are doing today, hold the line in opposition -- refusing to throw Republicans a political life raft?

It's of course possible that the deal that averts or ends a shutdown is enough to satisfy cast-iron conservatives. But given the relative political positions of the two parties -- polls make clear Republicans would be blamed more for a shutdown -- it seems unlikely that any deal that comes out will be the sort of compromise that satiates them fully.

Don't assume then that a shutdown = avoiding the debt ceiling deadline. If Congress and the White House have proven anything over these last few years of debt and spending negotiations, it's that assuming that normal political math works is a fool's errand.

Chris Cillizza writes “The Fix,” a politics blog for the Washington Post. He also covers the White House.
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