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Government shutdown: why new talks in Congress might avert another one

Rep. Paul Ryan (R) and Sen. Patty Murray (D) are leading a conference committee to hash out a new federal budget. But everyone knows even a modest compromise won't be easy.

By Staff writer / October 18, 2013

This photo provided by the Smithsonian's National Zoo shows Mei Xiang's giant panda cub undergoing an exam on Oct. 11, 2013, at the zoo in Washington. The zoo was set to reopen on Friday, though the popular panda cam went live on Thursday morning, Oct. 17.

Bill Clements/Smithsonian National Zoo/AP

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Washington

Congress ended one government shutdown this week, but did it also just set the stage for another shutdown come January?

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Maybe so. This week’s congressional action, after all, was an exercise in moving the goal posts, not a resolution of the fiscal debate between the parties. And setting up a bipartisan committee to hash things out is no guarantee of reaching the fiscal end zone. Exhibit A is what happened in similar circumstances back in 2011.

But things don’t necessarily have to play out that way. Much as gridlock has become the way of life in Washington, nobody views “shutdowns forever” as a viable way forward, either.  

Getting to yes on a new federal budget hinges on the leaders of the newly formed bipartisan conference committee: Republican Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin and Democratic Sen. Patty Murray of Washington.

If the two parties don’t reach a deal and have it approved in the House and Senate by Jan. 15, the next partial shutdown of federal services will begin.

The hurdles to a deal are admittedly high.

The two leaders of this conference committee start leagues apart. Senator Murray championed a Democratic budget that includes lots of new tax revenue and relatively little in entitlement reform or other spending cuts. The Ryan-flavored House budget envisions just the opposite.

And if compromise is hard for the two of them, it may be harder still for a committee that totals 29 members in all – with some House and Senate members from each party.

But some factors might nudge this process toward success – at least if success is defined as avoiding another shutdown:

The deal doesn’t need to be a “grand bargain.” The stakes in these talks are not as high as they were in 2011, when a bipartisan House-Senate committee sought a bargain to achieve major deficit reduction over a 10-year period. That’s partly because federal deficits have fallen since then and partly because politicians are choosing to be realistic heading into an election year. Ryan and Murray have dialed down the expectations meter.

In the end, America might get a deal that simply funds the government through the next election. The accord might emerge within the Ryan-Murray talks, or it could be brokered in the event of a collapse of those talks, which have a mid-December deadline.

Politicians have just been burned by failure. During the standoff that began with Congress failing to agree on a budget for the new fiscal year starting Oct. 1, Democrats and Republicans alike saw their poll ratings go down. Approval ratings for Republicans sank to a two-decade low according to Gallup, while satisfaction with the way the government is being run plunged to a record low for a period that stretches back to include the Vietnam War and Watergate scandal.

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