For a moment in the breathless talk about a government shutdown, a real threat emerged. Nextgov.com reported that federal workers might lose access to their BlackBerries. On Capitol Hill, staffers worried this might apply to them as well. The loss of connectivity "could be a legislative forcing event," said one Hill veteran—many staffers use the devices for their personal lives as well as work.
There is another reason there will not be a government shutdown, of course: Neither Democrats nor Republicans want it. Though their reasons for avoiding a day without funds are different, it is likely that—at least for the short term—both sides will come to some kind of agreement.
The White House wants Senate Democrats to make a deal. It cannot have a government shutdown while the economic recovery is still so fragile. Though the actual impact of a short shutdown would not be dire, it would increase uncertainty in the business community, say administration aides, sending the signal that in the bigger budget fights to come, no one in Washington can be trusted to do the right thing. Such unpredictability may cause businesses to hold on to their profits and hold off on investing or hiring new workers.
Administration officials talk about avoiding a shutdown with the finality they used during the Bush tax cut debate. Back then, they said the president could not allow taxes to go up for everyone. That was always the leverage Republicans had over the president. The tone is the same here: Obama cannot allow the government to shut down.
Why? The country is in a cutting mood. The president would like to make the case that his cuts are smarter than the ones Republicans are offering. As he has said, he offers a scalpel approach, not a meat-axe. But he has yet to make the case at length, in detail, or with sufficient frequency. And right now, as one veteran Democratic strategist involved in 2012 races put it, "the country is in a meat-axe mood." In 1995-96, during the last shutdown, the economy was good. Now people are hurting. They trust the government less. They think it could use a trimming. When the debate is about spending, Democrats lose," said another Democratic strategist trying to explain why Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid will have to move more toward the House GOP position than his opening bid. Reid had suggested a short-term measure that would fund the government at existing levels while the parties worked out the longer-term agreement.
The White House wants this resolved for another reason: The president doesn't want to engage in a full-on debate about priorities where every specific cut is argued over. He wants to stay "at 30,000 feet," as one adviser put it, not getting drawn into every line item. (Look how a single comment about unions drew him into the Wisconsin fracas.) He wants to keep pushing on the "Win the Future" campaign to show moderate and independent voters that these fiscal fights serve a larger purpose. If he starts the fight now, it's not on the terms he wants.
Republicans, meanwhile, don't want a shutdown because they can't risk having their first big public act be that they shut down the government. Footage of Newt Gingrich will flood the airwaves. Gingrich, who writes in the Washington Post that House Republicans should not fear shutting down the government, is right that the shutdown wasn't as big a political nightmare as is commonly believed. Voters sided with President Bill Clinton by a 2-to-1 margin, but only 8 percent of those voters thought the shutdown had much to do with their lives. Congressional approval actually went up in the Gallup poll in 1995 and 1996. Clinton's approval was no higher than it was before the shutdowns. Republicans picked up seats in the Senate in 1996 and lost only a few seats in the House.
One person who did not fare well during the shutdown, however, was Gingrich. His disapproval number in polls was always higher than his approval number, but during the shutdown his disapproval number almost reached 70 percent.
GOP leadership aides are also worried that the narrative of the shutdown stories will be that House Speaker John Boehner is too beholden to the "Tea Party crazies." That diminishes Boehner's stature and suggests the House is out of control. What about those Tea Party freshman? "They understand that if [Democratic Senator] Chuck Schumer is rooting for a shutdown it's not good for them," says a GOP leadership aide.
So what will happen? A slight advantage goes to Republicans. "Without presidential help," says a senior Senate Democratic aide, "we don't have the tactical ability to fight this out." Reid's staffers have been negotiating with Boehner's office for the last few weeks, and while relations have been cordial, House Republicans are not moving off their request for cuts.
House GOP appropriators released a two-week continuing resolution Friday afternoon. It will call for $4 billion in cuts. That's a pro-rated share of the $60 billion in cuts House Republicans called for in their bill to fund government operations for the remainder of the fiscal year. But the pain won't be pro-rated: The programs to be cut are ones Obama has already said he wants cut, say House GOP aides, along with some earmark funds.
House Republicans believe that the more reasonable they make this new short-term measure, the more Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell will be able to get some Democrats to vote for it. Twenty-three of them are up for re-election in 2012, many in tight races in states where they need to appeal to moderates and independents who, according to polls, care more about deficit reduction.
Reid will have to see what his Democratic colleagues say when they come back to Washington after their weeklong recess. The House will vote on the shortened funding measure Tuesday, which gives the Senate several days to take a vote. Republicans make it sound like their two-week fix will give everyone enough time to discuss the larger bill with the nearly $60 billion in reductions for this year. It's not that simple, say Democrats. Two weeks is an awfully short time. One White House official said they want to avoid having to agree to a series of two-week extensions that essentially add up to $60 billion in the end.
If Republicans have all this leverage, why not take a harder line? Why stop at $4 billion in cuts in this temporary two-week funding measure? Because they don't want to push their luck. They want to stick Reid with blame for shutting down the government if he can't get his caucus behind this smaller continuing resolution. The more aggressive they are with their demands, the more they might get blamed if it fails.
It turns out Hill staffers probably don't have to worry about losing their BlackBerries. Congress is considered "essential" in a government shutdown (though, try telling that to the Tea Party). That means they are allowed to keep working and thumbing away on their digital devices. The initial fears about losing connectivity were overblown, which may go for the fears of a shutdown at the end of next week, too.