Time to end the dangerous dance in Washington

Many in Washington cannot believe Congress will be crazy enough to drive theeconomy over a cliff

Lawmakers in Washington after voting to guarantee that federal workers will receive back pay once the government reopens after its shutdown. Public opinion is likely to turn further against Republicans as the full impact of the interruption to many federal services is felt. Photograph: Drew Angerer/The New York Times

Lawmakers in Washington after voting to guarantee that federal workers will receive back pay once the government reopens after its shutdown. Public opinion is likely to turn further against Republicans as the full impact of the interruption to many federal services is felt. Photograph: Drew Angerer/The New York Times


Last weekend was unseasonably warm in Washington, with temperatures above 30 degrees, but sweaty tourists on the National Mall seeking a respite from the heat found museums and monuments closed as the shutdown of the US federal government meant that all staff had been sent home without pay.

Callers to the White House were greeted by a recorded message explaining that “due to the lapse in federal funding, we are unable to take your call”.

Still, the atmosphere in the city was oddly festive, with restaurants around Dupont Circle offering “shutdown specials” and many reporting a resurgence in lunchtime drinking. Washington Sports Club, a gym on Connecticut Avenue, was offering free membership for October to federal workers who found themselves with time on their hands.

The 800,000 furloughed federal workers will be paid for the days they would have worked during the shutdown but not until they return to work, whenever Congress agrees to start funding the government again. For many at the lower end of the pay scale the shutdown is already starting to bite. Businesses that depend on the government for work have also begun to feel the pinch.

Yet there is no end in sight for this stand-off over the annual federal budget, which the Republican leadership in Congress, president Barack Obama and leading Democrats had all hoped to avoid.

Instead it looks set to merge with a looming battle over the statutory limit on how much the federal budget may borrow – which Congress must increase by October 17th if the US government is to avoid defaulting on its debts.

Everyone from the International Monetary Fund to the big banks on Wall Street warn that default could prove catastrophic, not just for the US but for the global economy. That may be why many in Washington seem so relaxed about the current bout of brinkmanship – they just cannot believe that even this polarised Congress will be crazy enough to drive the economy over a cliff.

Full impact
Polls show that more Americans blame Republicans than the president for the shutdown, and public opinion is likely to turn further against the party as the full impact of the interruption in many federal services is felt. Republican house speaker John Boehner has made no secret of his personal opposition to his party’s refusal to approve a federal budget unless the president agreed to delay implementing a key element of the Affordable Care Act, the healthcare reform that is Obama’s signature legislative achievement. Boehner could probably muster a big enough minority of Republicans to pass a budget in co-operation with Democrats and the president has this week been taunting the speaker to put the budget to a vote.

Although the leading voices championing the shutdown have been Tea Party eccentrics such as Texas senator Ted Cruz and his allies, described by one moderate Republican congressman as “lemmings with suicide vests”, support within the congressional caucus reaches far beyond the radical fringe. Gerrymandered districts mean that most house Republicans occupy safe seats where there is little public support for compromise with a president many right-wing voters view as a dangerous crypto-socialist.

Indeed, a Pew poll last week found that a majority of Republican voters believe that an end to the shutdown without changes to Obama’s healthcare law would be unacceptable and that Congress can breach the deadline for avoiding a federal default without serious consequences.

Many formerly moderate Republicans in Congress have shifted rightwards in recent years in an effort to avoid primary challenges from the Tea Party and other conservative groups. And the most vulnerable Republican seats at next year’s mid-term elections are held by moderates rather than conservatives.

Meanwhile the traditionally powerful influence of big business over Republicans has dwindled to the point where warnings about the current strategy from the US Chamber of Commerce have been ignored. Boehner fears that, if he defies his party by compromising over the budget now, he will lose the speakership after next year’s congressional elections. The deeply pragmatic speaker, who lost his position within the Republican leadership in 1998 and spent almost a decade trying to claw his way back, is not about to sacrifice his leadership to a higher end.

The conventional wisdom in Washington is that Republicans are on a suicide mission and this shutdown will end as disastrously for them as did the last one in 1996, which helped Bill Clinton to win a second term. The shutdown’s unpopularity should help Democrat Terry McAuliffe to win next month’s gubernatorial race in Virginia, but Republicans remain unlikely to lose control of the House of Representatives next year.

Current impasse
The most likely resolution to the current impasse is a deal with the White House that will fund the government, thus ending the shutdown and raise the debt ceiling for a few weeks to allow for negotiations on reducing the deficit. Both Democrats and Republicans are eager for a deal that would avoid renewing automatic spending cuts across many government departments that were triggered by last year’s failure to agree a budget.

Many Democrats in Washington are enjoying the current stand-off, confident that it will cause enduring damage to the Republican brand. Failure to avoid a default could damage both parties, however, particularly if an economic shock derails the already fragile recovery for which the president claims credit.

Denis Staunton is deputy editor

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