A government shutdown just became a bit more likely. That might be a good thing.

September 12, 2013

We're a bit closer to a government shutdown today. And that may not be such a bad thing. Here's the deal:


(J. Scott Applewhite/Associated Press)

1) House Republicans pulled their bill to fund the government. The House was expected to vote Wednesday on a bill to continue funding the federal government. The initial whip count showed the bill 18 votes short of passage, so the vote didn't happen. Why is the bill 18 votes short of passage? Obamacare, of course.

2) The GOP's small Obamacare problem. The vote was delayed because the House GOP can't decide on what to do about Obamacare. Hardcore conservatives want to refuse to fund the government as  long as any of that funding goes to Obamacare — which is to say, they want to shut down the government over Obamacare. This is a fight that House leadership believes they will lose, and lose very badly.

So Team Boehner tried to finesse it. The funding bill required a vote on defunding Obamacare. But House conservatives quickly realized that they would lose the vote in the Senate and the result would be the federal government would get funded, and Obamacare would be funded along with it. So they turned on the bill, and, fearing for its passage, House leadership delayed the vote.

3) The GOP's big Obamacare problem. Behind all this is a simple fact: The GOP has lost on Obamacare. They didn't have the votes to stop it from passing in 2010. They didn't have the votes to repeal it in 2011. They didn't have the votes to win the presidency and the Senate by campaigning against it in 2012. And they really have no way to stop it in 2013.

Now it's going into effect, and once it goes into effect and begins delivering health insurance to tens of millions of people, it's pretty much here to stay.

But conservatives don't want to believe they've lost on Obamacare, and the rest of the Republican Party is scared to admit they've lost on Obamacare. So as their situation becomes more desperate their tactics become more desperate, too. That's what you get when your position is a mixture of delusion and fear.

4) There isn't much time to pass a bill funding the government. So the GOP doesn't know how to pass a bill funding the government because they don't know what to do about Obamacare — and they don't seem on the verge of figuring it out, either.

Meanwhile, time is running short. As Jonathan Chait writes, "a bill needs to pass by September 30, and Congress has a rigorous vacation schedule to adhere to, giving it precious little time to accomplish the goal of not shutting down the government."

5) A government shutdown wouldn't be the worst thing in the world. It's breaching the debt ceiling that would be a disaster. There are two fiscal crack-ups on offer this fall. One is a government shutdown. That's bad, but it's not a catastrophe. The other is breaching the debt ceiling. That's a complete and utter catastrophe.

The timeline here is cold and unforgiving: Absent action, the government shutdown will happen at the end of this month. The debt ceiling could collapse as soon as Oct. 18.

If the GOP needs to lose a giant showdown in order to empower more realistic voices and move forward, it's better that showdown happens over a government shutdown then a debt-ceiling breach. A government shutdown is highly visible and dramatic, but it won't actually destroy the economy. So an "optimistic" case might be that there's a shutdown for the first few days of October, the GOP gets creamed in public opinion, the hostage-taking strategies of the party's right flank are discredited, and Washington is at a much better equilibrium by the time the debt ceiling needs to be raised.

And yes, I realize that naming that tornado of lunacy the "optimistic" outcome is enough to make anyone pessimistic about the state of American politics. Good. You should be pessimistic about the state of American politics.

6. What could go wrong? The danger is that Boehner and Cantor might be shortsighted enough to convince their members to fund the government by making dangerous promises about how they'll fight the debt ceiling. That might already be happening. The National Review's Jonathan Strong reports that, "Leadership, meanwhile, is urging rank-and-file members to direct their energies to the upcoming debt ceiling fight, which Whip Kevin McCarthy told me yesterday is the 'perfect' venue for an Obamacare battle."

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