Budget crisis becoming D.C's new normal
A shutdown looms over ending funding for the health care plan. Strong feelings fuel both sides of the issue.
WASHINGTON - 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 immediate 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 sent it back "clean," meaning with full funding for the law known formally as the Affordable Care Act and derided by critics 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 indeed, just about every poll shows that, three years after its passage, Obamacare is unpopular with voters. In the latest Washington Post-ABC News poll, 52 percent said they disapprove of the law, while only 42 percent support it.
But Americans are even less enchanted with the idea of bringing the government to a halt as a means of blocking the Affordable Care Act.
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.
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 Boehner (R., Ohio) in a telephone call Friday night. The Senate, on the other hand, is a vastly different political landscape.
Though firebrands led by Sen. Ted Cruz (R., Texas) 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.
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 health-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.