Government shutdown is on. How long will it last?

The conventional wisdom is that the government shutdown, which began Tuesday, will either end quickly or will stretch at least a week. The quick-end scenario may depend largely on House Speaker John Boehner.

Susan Walsh/AP
People walk near Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Oct. 1, 2013.

The Government Shutdown of 2013 is on. A congressional dispute over whether Obamacare should be defunded or delayed as a condition of continued government funding has forced some 800,000 federal workers off the job. One by one Washington agencies are turning off the lights, rolling down their shades, and shutting the doors.

How long will they be closed? How long will the shutdown last?

No one can answer those questions with complete assurance. But taking past such confrontations into account, the conventional wisdom is that the shutdown either ends very quickly or will stretch at least seven days.

“Feels like if there isn’t a resolution today, then we’re probably looking at a shutdown thru the week, possibly merging w/debt ceiling 10/17,” tweeted NBC White House correspondent Chuck Todd on Tuesday morning.

The quick-end scenario depends crucially on House Speaker John Boehner’s intentions. If all he meant to do was placate tea party conservatives by forcing the Obamacare dispute just past the point of a government shutdown, proving he’d stand with them longer than many pundits had predicted, well then, mission accomplished.

Indeed, some House Republicans on Tuesday said it was time for Speaker Boehner to fold. Rep. Scott Rigell (R) of Virginia tweeted, “We fought the good fight. Time for a clean CR,” meaning time for a funding bill without any provision that would alter the Affordable Care Act.

As of midday Tuesday, hope for a quick end to the dispute was fading, however. Tempers still seemed hot and rhetoric was pointed. The Democratic-controlled Senate rejected the House demand for a conference committee to discuss terms of continued government funding. In response, prospective House conferees held a photo-op that consisted of them sitting across from some empty chairs. “That’s not how adults operate,” said President Obama of House Republicans during a midday Rose Garden appearance.

The last time the government shut down, things began with a five-day federal work interruption in November 1995, followed by shutdown that stretched from Dec. 16, 1995, to Jan. 6, 1996.

Considering that experience, the current shutdown could stretch for some time.

“I’m projecting that the shutdown will last at least a week because it will take that long for the impact of the shutdown to start to be felt and, therefore, to make ending it more politically acceptable,” writes Stan Collender, a veteran federal budget expert and Qorvis Communications executive, on his "Capital Gains and Games" blog.

Federal agencies won’t be fully shuttered until the middle of the week, says Mr. Collender, who as a congressional staffer helped write the laws governing the modern congressional budget process. Voter frustration at lack of government services won’t hit until week’s end. Then it will abate a bit on Saturday and Sunday.

On Monday voters will face the full reality: They can’t apply for a passport, camp at Yellowstone, get an answer to a Medicare question, or – crucially – get paid if they are a government contractor.

“This is the point at which there will start to be real pressure on members of Congress as the impact of the shutdown finally hits home for many people and the prospect of lost wages and less business becomes a reality,” writes Collender.

Meanwhile, right-leaning Weekly Standard editor William Kristol was urging House Republicans to stand pat for at least a week, and possibly until Oct. 17, when Congress will have to raise the debt ceiling if the US is to pay debts already incurred.

Mr. Kristol compared the current US political situation with a game of blackjack. House Republicans “have a hand they could easily make worse by panicking, and which could be good enough for a win or draw if they keep calm.”

Boehner should send members home to their districts for a few days to get them out of the Washington bubble and hear the voices of their constituents, who may feel few effects of the shutdown, according to Kristol. Meanwhile, Boehner and the rest of the GOP leadership should start to think about how they’ll play their cards in the coming debt ceiling fight.

Many economists believe a standoff on the debt ceiling that leads to inaction would damage the US economy much more than a government shutdown. That’s because the prospect of Uncle Sam reneging on his debt might cause international financial markets to freak out, perhaps spiking interest rates.

In his Rose Garden appearance Tuesday, Mr. Obama said he would have more to say about a possible breach of the debt ceiling in the days ahead.

“It would be far more dangerous than a government shutdown, as bad as a shutdown is,” said Obama.

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