DESPITE all the huffing and puffing, government shutdowns usually amount to little more than footnotes in the annual budget maneuvering between the White House and Congress. But this year is different.
Should the two branches fail to break their deadlock by midnight tonight, it will be the 10th time since 1981 that the government's ability to spend money has lapsed. On four occasions, federal offices closed. If the public noticed anything, it was padlocks on the Statue of Liberty.
This time the stakes are higher. The budget is the blueprint of a revolution. It diagrams the most radical transformation of government in 65 years. Its success or failure will influence the final presidential election of this century. Failure to compromise could force Washington to default on its loans for the first time, putting voters' interest rates at risk.
The outcome of the battle may seal the rise of the Republicans and speed the collapse of the Democrats. Or it could put the Democrats on the path toward recovery. The calculations are crucial for each side.
"The Republicans have their foot on the fuel pedal, the Democrats on the brakes," says John Pitney, a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College in California.
If the Republicans succeed, he says, they will have defined the debate. If not, "Democrats can use a default as a club."
The ends of Pennsylvania Avenue must meet twice to avoid a shutdown tonight. First, they must agree on a bill that authorizes continued short-term spending while the budget is finished. Six weeks into the new fiscal year and the budget still unsigned, such stop-gap legislation is necessary to keep government functioning.
Second, Congress and the White House must agree to raise the debt ceiling, the limit on federal borrowing.
The government is expected to reach the current $4.9 trillion debt on Wednesday. Raising the ceiling a bit would keep Treasury in business until mid-December, when lawmakers hope to finish the budget.
Government agencies and Congress began putting together contingency plans last week to close nonessential offices should the stalemate force a shutdown tomorrow. Such an event might make it difficult to fuel Air Force One so the president can fly to Japan as scheduled. Veterans checks would stop and passport applications would be stalled.
But other than the roughly 800,000 federal workers who could be kept off the job, most of the public might not notice a temporary closure. Mail, welfare, and Amtrak would all continue.
The bigger threat is a default. If Treasury loses its ability to pay its bills, interest rates on mortgages and credit cards may rise. Investors may lose confidence in the US economy, sending tremors through the world's markets.
What's caused the stalemate? The Republicans have attached riders to the temporary spending bill that President Clinton objects to, including a measure to delay cuts in Medicare premiums. He vows to veto such legislation.
"I will not allow them to impose new, immediate cuts in Medicare, education, and the environment as a condition of keeping the government open," Mr. Clinton said in his weekend radio address.
Congress also wrote restrictions into its bill raising the debt ceiling that would prevent Treasury from dipping into trust funds to service its debts. The president has threatened to veto that bill as well.
Republican leaders on the Hill prepared over the weekend for a "Hill Noon" showdown today, calculating that the public would hold the president responsible for a shutdown or default.
"We're doing our job, we're passing the bills," House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R) of Georgia said. "If the president wants to sign these bills, the government will be open."
What a drag
But observers point out that Congress, which holds the responsibility for passing budgets, has sent only three of 13 spending bills to the White House. One was vetoed. The budget process is dragging. To the extent that voters perceive Congress to be in the driver's seat, they may blame Republicans for a default.
That, combined with changes in Medicare and student loans, seems to be working in favor of Clinton. A CNN poll over the weekend found his approval rating up to 59 percent.
But Professor Pitney thinks the GOP is poised to reap longer-term benefits from the budget process.
"Subtraction is a lot harder than addition in Washington," he says. "Even if Republicans compromise with the president, they still have the upper hand. They're shaping the budget debate."