Late last week, we heard that Republicans and Democrats in Congress may have an agreement to delay -- at least for two weeks -- the looming shutdown of the federal government. To keep the government running, the two parties will have to come to an agreement on the budget for the remainder of the year. But things don't look good, since the fundamental disagreement between the parties remains unchanged: Republicans want radical cuts to the programs Democrats like, and Democrats don't want them. If those two weeks run out without an agreement, hundreds of thousands of workers will be furloughed, government offices will close, and services will be curtailed. Given that a shutdown is still more likely than not, this becomes the most important question: How will it end?
The factors leading us toward a shutdown are precisely those that will make ending it so difficult. It's safe to say that House Speaker John Boehner doesn't want a shutdown; he was around in 1995 and 1996, when Republicans suffered badly during a similar budget confrontation with President Bill Clinton, and unlike his predecessor Newt Gingrich, Boehner is more of a backroom deal maker than the kind of politician who sets political fires in the hopes his party will emerge unscathed when the smoke clears. Other Republicans are concerned as well: When National Journal polled "political insiders" last week, only 19 percent of Republicans said a shutdown was in their party's interest, compared with 56 percent of Democrats.
It may not matter, however, whether it's in Republicans' true political interest to shut down the government. Rank-and-file Republicans are about evenly split on whether their representatives should shut down the government if they don't get what they want. But it's the party's right wing that will be driving this bus. Which highlights Boehner's problem: The caucus Boehner leads, let's not forget, is even more conservative than the ideological warriors of the Gingrich revolution. In theory, he could assemble a coalition of moderate Republicans and Democrats to approve a budget, leaving Tea Party Republicans on the outside. Boehner, though, has demonstrated over and over that he is too terrified of his party's right wing to take it on. The hardliners see the showdown as a test of Boehner's commitment to limited government and, just as important, a test of his willingness to stand firm against Barack Obama and the Democrats. Any wavering and all those newly elected Tea Partiers will rebel.
If a shutdown isn't averted, the news will be filled with stories about its consequences: shots of national parks with "Closed" signs at their gates, veterans complaining of their inability to access benefits, pictures of empty offices, and so on. The public will contrast a conciliatory President Obama willing to make some cuts to pass a budget with an intransigent GOP that wants to destroy government at any cost.
Unfortunately, however, the way things really are isn't what far-right conservatives tend to see, and that's likely to be no less true here. Inside the Republican bubble, in which all news comes from Fox News and conservative talk radio, recalcitrant lawmakers will be cheered on and told that all right-thinking Americans agree with them. Polls and reports showing otherwise will be discounted as products of insidious liberal bias. These outlets will also deliver a threat to the congressional leadership, repeated on a daily basis: Come to an agreement that looks like anything short of total Democratic capitulation, and you will be punished severely.
Another factor weighing against a deal will be that so many Tea Party members of Congress are such true believers. They really do see government as the enemy, and they don't much care whether it stays open. National parks closing, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention not tracking disease outbreaks, seniors not being able to sign up for Medicare? Whatever. Their indifference puts them in a strong bargaining position, because the Democrats are the ones who want government to stay open.
This is similar to what happened among Democrats during the health-care debate. Both progressives and centrists had demands, but everyone knew that in the end, the progressives were going to vote for the bill. They cared deeply about people who didn't have insurance and wanted desperately to achieve this long-standing progressive goal at one of the few moments it could be done. There was no such certainty about centrists like Ben Nelson and Blanche Lincoln. They didn't care nearly as much, and when they threatened to withhold their support and kill the entire effort, it was a believable threat.
This analogy only goes so far, but it shows one important fact in the complex negotiations that will be taking place. The White House and congressional Democrats will be negotiating with the Republican leadership, but that leadership is going to simultaneously have to negotiate with its own right wing. And that right wing may be willing to hold out for a long time, until the political cost becomes so overwhelming that they actually begin to fear for their jobs.
And that, in the end, is the only thing that will end the shutdown. Democrats will never give in to all the cuts Republicans want, not only because the list is positively horrific but also because the president is reportedly intensely worried -- and with good reason -- that the Republicans' proposed budget cuts would do serious harm to the economy and thus to his re-election chances next year. Democrats are willing to meet somewhere in the middle, but the right wing of the GOP equates compromise with surrender. It will only sign on if the political consequences of a continued stalemate are obviously high.
It's hard to say when exactly that moment will come, but we can be optimistic and hope it arrives reasonably quickly. As the consequences of a shutdown become clear, Republicans could be seen as extremists bent on destruction, willing to sacrifice Americans' well-being, the country's economy, and anything else that gets in their way, to a series of highly ideological goals like cutting off women's access to birth control, preventing environmental protection, cutting funds for food safety, and trimming student financial aid.
Eventually, the political price the GOP is paying will drive Republicans to the negotiating table. But when a compromise is eventually worked out, the real cost will be significant. Even if they are forced to retreat on their culture-war goals, by forcing substantial budget cuts, Republicans will succeed in weakening the economic recovery. From all appearances, they don't much care.