Budget bill booted back to House. Just shut down government, already?

The showdown over Obamacare, with threats to shut down government or breach the debt ceiling, has some commentators saying it's time for Washington to go over the ledge, for clarity's sake.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP
Storm clouds hang over Capitol Hill in Washington, Friday, Sept. 27, 2013, as the Republican-controlled House and the Democrat-controlled Senate stand at an impasse with Congress continuing to struggle over how to fund the government and prevent a possible shutdown.

The atmosphere in Washington is now so poisonous that the Senate chaplain opened Friday’s session with a prayer that in essence called for a higher power to step in and end ongoing partisan fiscal strife.

“Keep us from shackling ourselves with the chains of dysfunction.... Lord, deliver us from governing by crisis, empowering us to be responsible stewards of your bounty,” said Chaplain Barry C. Black.

That may yet come to fruition. In the meantime, disputes between the conservative and establishment wings of the Republican Party and between the GOP-controlled House and Democratic-controlled Senate remained so intense that governing by crisis appeared a likely possibility.

This is not a budget-battle-as-usual. Washington is currently engaged in “a high-stakes showdown that is playing out in a climate of chaos, infighting and unpredictability that is extraordinary even by congressional standards,” according to Alan Fram of the Associated Press.

That’s led some commentators to opine that it’s time for Washington to just go over the ledge, already. Get it over with. Shut down the government or breach the debt ceiling. Like Sherlock Holmes and his archenemy Professor Moriarty, perhaps the two parties should close for a final struggle and plunge over Reichenbach Falls.

“With apologies to Nike, maybe it’s time ... to stop threatening and ‘just do it,’ ” writes Todd S. Purdum in Politico Friday.

Purdum was referring to House Republicans in particular. They’ve engaged in brinkmanship by making the defunding of Obamacare the price of funding the government past Sept. 30, in this view.

But the Senate on Friday rejected that linkage, voting along party lines to strip the legislation of the Obamacare defunding clause and send it back to the House. House GOP leaders appear uncertain how to proceed.

If Speaker John Boehner stands his ground, a government shutdown is probable, if not certain. The dire fiscal and political effects of this might “break the fever” and give Boehner more leverage over the conservatives in his caucus who are insisting on the defund-Obamacare provision.

Or you can take the other side – it’s the Democrats whose fever might break. A shuttered government and plunging stock market might convince President Obama to move off his maximalist position and agree to delay, cuts, or other changes in his signature domestic health law.

In both cases the point is that the shock of a bad scenario might clarify the situation and ensure that this fiscal standoff won’t be repeated in months and years ahead.

“Mightn’t it be better to let the crash happen, if only so the reconstruction can start?” writes Purdum.

Others argue that a shutdown of the government Oct. 1 would be a small price to pay if it convinces Congress to raise the debt ceiling later in the month.

Boehner and other House GOP leaders would prefer a debt ceiling showdown, in large part because they believe it is an issue on which they have more leverage. Shutting down the government by not approving a spending bill would be unpopular with voters, according to polls. But raising the debt ceiling? Polls show voters generally agree that should be tied to debt reduction.

The problem is that many economists think breaching the debt ceiling would be much, much worse for the economy than shutting down the government. It likely would result in the US reneging on debts already incurred, which might freak out world financial markets.

Thus it would be bad if Boehner succeeds in getting his caucus to focus on the debt ceiling, write Ezra Klein and Evan Soltas on the Washington Post’s Wonkblog. Conservatives would be even more likely to focus on confrontation since they might feel they had not stood up and fought on the continuing resolution authorizing government spending.

“Accepting a [government] shutdown for a much lower likelihood of a debt-ceiling breach might be a good trade,” they write.

Then there are those who think even a debt default would be a good thing if it means neither party would ever again use a debt ceiling vote as a means to try and extract concessions from the White House.

Though it would be better for the House GOP to just go ahead and agree to raise the debt ceiling, for President Obama the “next best option is to refuse to negotiate the debt ceiling, allow default, and never have to go through it again. Bargaining merely postpones, and worsens, the next default crisis,” writes Jonathan Chait of New York Magazine.

Given the mood in Washington it’s unfortunate but true that it is likely the US will find out if any of these theories are correct.

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