With little more than a week to go before a potential government shutdown, Washington feels like a car without a driver on a road without a guardrail.
As it hurtles toward the edge, no one — conservatives, GOP leadership, congressional Democrats, the White House — seems to have a way to stop it.
Lurching from near-calamity to near-catastrophe has become a way of life in the capital, which has stood at the edge of a financial precipice at least four times since the end of 2010.
What makes these crises all the more exasperating is that none of them seem to resolve the political and ideological disputes that cause them. All they do is put both sides on a course toward the next disaster zone.
The one immediately ahead arises from the fact that the fiscal year will end on Sept. 30 without Congress having passed any of the spending bills needed to keep the government in operation going into 2014.
Without at least a stopgap funding bill, most nonessential federal operations will come to a halt.
Benefits payments, such as Social Security checks, would still go out, and critical functions such as national security would continue. But military pay would probably be delayed, hundreds of thousands of federal employees would be furloughed and attractions such as national parks would close.
“After five years spent digging out of crisis, the last thing we need is for Washington to manufacture another,” President Obama said in his weekly address Saturday, noting the fragility of the economic recovery. “But that’s what will happen in the next few weeks if Congress doesn’t meet two deadlines.”
The most pressing issue is a demand by conservative groups and tea party lawmakers that any spending measure include a provision that would strip funding for the health-care overhaul, which is set to kick into gear on Oct. 1.
The Republican-led House has passed a bill that would accomplish that, but it stands no chance in the Senate, which is virtually certain to send it back “clean,” meaning with full funding for the law that is known as Obamacare.
Even if they figure a way around this stalemate and keep the government open, a graver crisis is coming up quickly on its heels as the government hits the limit of its borrowing authority some time in mid- to late October. If Congress does not raise the debt ceiling, it could force the nation into default and the global financial markets into chaos.
Conservatives and tea party activists insist that Republicans will be rewarded for going to the barricades to stop the health-care law.
And just about every poll shows that, three years after its passage, Obamacare remains unpopular with voters. In the latest Washington Post-ABC News poll, 52 percent said they disapprove of the law; only 42 percent said they support it.
But Americans are even less enchanted with the idea of bringing the government to a halt as a means of blocking Obamacare.
The Republicans’ own numbers show that. In a recent survey conducted by David Winston, a pollster who advises the House GOP, 71 percent said they opposed “shutting down the government as a way to defund the President’s health care law.” Only 23 percent approved.
In an interview, Winston said that even the Republicans who were surveyed said a shutdown is a bad idea, 53 percent to 37 percent.
“I know when you get led into a box canyon what that means,” said Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), evoking imagery of an infamous method by which buffalo were slaughtered in the Old West. “Box canyon, here we come.”
Democrats are convinced they have the upper hand. The president has maintained that he will not negotiate with Republicans on the funding bill or the debt ceiling — a point he repeated to House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) in a telephone call Friday night. Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) plans to ensure that no bill defunding the health-care law reaches Obama’s desk.
From time to time, the fiscal year has brought partial, temporary shutdowns — nine of them, for instance, between fiscal 1981 and fiscal 1995. But they were over relatively narrow disputes, and none lasted more than three days.
Then-Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) was the first to engineer one as a strategy to wage a broader policy battle, with President Bill Clinton in 1995.
Gingrich and his forces had many advantages in 1995 that today’s Republicans do not. Their party’s standing with voters was stronger, they controlled both houses of Congress, and they were far more united than Republicans are today.
When he began laying plans for a year-end government shutdown, he was still at the height of his influence, after having led the House Republicans through an election that produced their first majority in four decades.
“This is the heart of the revolution,” Gingrich told Time magazine in June 1995.
“He can run the parts of government that are left, or he can run no government,” Gingrich said of Clinton. “Which of the two of us do you think worries more about the government not showing up?”
That year actually produced two shutdowns — one in November lasting five days and a second from mid-December to early January that went on for 21 days.
In the current telling of some conservative groups, the Republicans won that showdown.
That is not a widely held view among those who actually lived through it. They note that the 1995-96 shutdown helped resurrect Clinton’s presidency and put him on the way to a landslide reelection over GOP nominee Bob Dole.
“Prior to the shutdown, it looked as though the Republican nominee was going to be able to defeat Clinton handily. After the shutdown, Dole was clearly behind and struggling,” said Winston, who worked as an aide to Gingrich in the late 1990s. “Looking at any of the survey numbers, the shutdown was clearly a negative for Republicans.”
Nor did it do much to change the trajectory of federal spending, as the Republicans had promised it would.
“We gained almost nothing. It was a rounding error,” said Steve Bell of the Bipartisan Policy Center, who was a longtime top Republican staffer on the Senate Budget Committee. “It was subsumed by the next year’s economic forecast.”
But fewer than one in five of those now serving in the House were around for that earlier standoff.
One of them is Boehner, Bell noted. “I know the speaker, who went through that, knows who has the bully pulpit and who is going to get blamed,” he said.
Newer GOP members have come to power in a more unbending political culture, partly because of the rise of the tea party movement and partly because of the way their district lines are drawn.
An analysis this past week by the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics found that 94 of the House’s 233 Republicans come from districts in which GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney got 60 percent or more of the vote. Practically speaking, that means they come from areas so conservative that they have more to fear from a primary challenger on the right than they do from a Democrat in a general election.
The Senate, on the other hand, is a vastly different political landscape.
Although firebrands led by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) have been egging on their party for a showdown, other Republicans in the Senate fear that overreaching now could squander their chance of regaining a majority in next year’s midterm elections.
Besides that, it won’t work.
“We would be telling people that we’re defunding Obamacare when we really aren’t — so little of it is contained in annual appropriations,” said Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), who has strong credentials on the right. “We’re held in low-enough regard without telling people we’re doing something when we really aren’t.”
Nor will a bill that defunds the health-care law survive the Senate — a fact Cruz conceded after the House passed the measure he had pushed for so strenuously.
Under the Senate rules, Reid needs only 51 votes to defeat the Cruz-backed amendment that would eliminate spending for the health-care law. With 54 members in his caucus, it is a cinch he can get them.
So the only option left for Cruz to obstruct passage of a stopgap spending measure sets up a truly perverse situation — he can filibuster the House-passed bill when it comes to the Senate, even though that means blocking the very Obamacare-defunding measure that he and his allies worked so hard to get the House to approve.
On Saturday, the conservative organization Heritage Action for America sent out a bulletin urging senators to do just that. But the whole thing has left flummoxed Senate Republicans wondering what kind of double somersault it would take to explain all of this to their constituents back home.
Meanwhile, back in the House, Boehner and his forces are struggling to figure out an endgame. They will have to scramble, because Reid is expected to wait until the last minute to return a Senate-passed bill to their chamber.
In other words, the week ahead promises yet another installment of cliffhanger legislating, Washington’s new normal. And then, it’s on to the next crisis.