POLITICS
10/17/2013 04:52 pm ET

The Shutdown Is Over! So ... What Happens Now?

AP

What time is the next government shutdown? And what is the future of everything?

Glad you asked, because even though the federal government is re-opened and the threat of a debt default has been forestalled, it doesn't pay to get too comfortable. Life inside the Beltway will largely return to its typical status quo of atomic constipation, threadbare competence and small-minded backbiting. And that's the good part! In just a few short months, everyone will probably blunder back into a crisis. Here's the basic roadmap for the days to come.

The future of GOP dysfunction

Let's begin with the most obvious observation: There are deep and nettlesome divisions within the Republican caucus right now, and it's completely bollixing their ability to govern or work together.

The central problem, of course, is that the GOP's tea party rump has no patience for the sort of incremental victories that are the only hopes for a party that controls only one-half of one-third of the overall legislative process. Rather, they are bent on attempting to achieve things that the Senate won't pass and that the president won't sign into law, but which they nevertheless perceive as being overly generous accommodations to their opponents. A measure to defund Obamacare is sold, by this woolly rump, as a great compromise because, hey, they aren't trying to repeal the health care reform law anymore!

And the infighting shows no signs of dying down. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), after spending a considerable amount of time appearing in ads run against his fellow Republicans, on Wednesday night complained of Republicans "firing cannons" at one another. Thursday morning, rock-ribbed conservative Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) called out the Heritage Foundation for a lack of foundation.

Josh Barro essentially summed all of this up in way that recalls William Butler Yeats's poem "The Second Coming," in which "the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity":

Roughly one-third of this caucus thinks hitting the debt ceiling and shutting down the government are great strategies to try to stop Obamacare. The other two-thirds of the party has realized all along that this strategy sucks, but they could not find any way to stop their party from implementing it -- even though these "reasonable" Republicans outnumber the crazies.

"There is no serious argument for Republican governance right now," says Barro, "even if you prefer conservative policies over liberal ones."

The future of President Barack Obama's agenda

In his post-shutdown press conference Thursday, President Obama declaimed about how the budget and comprehensive immigration reform should get done this year. (He said the same thing about the farm bill, perhaps in an effort to set the bar as low as possible.) The problem, of course, is that the GOP's krokodil caucus has just been handed a defeat on the government shutdown, and anger over this humiliation isn't going to make them more amenable to compromise. I mean, they weren't particularly amenable to compromise before the government shutdown!

Fusion's Jordan Fabian is pretty blunt about all of this: "President Obama says he’s ready to renew the push for immigration reform immediately after the fiscal crises plaguing Washington end," he says, adding that "we’re not convinced that’s a fight he can win." Fabian notes that the House immigration bill that most closely resembles the Senate's is "going nowhere," smaller bills that some Republicans have advanced have yet to make it to the floor for a vote, and the House hasn't managed to hold together its own bipartisan "Gang," as the Senate, crucially, did. And you have to add to all of that the fact that the "House only has 23 more planned legislative days left this year."

Obama also has a major agenda crisis outside the legislature that he has to handle with all deliberate speed -- the busted-up online implementation of Obamacare's health insurance exchanges. Obama caught a big break when the systemic malfunctions of Healthcare.gov were overshadowed by the gigantic tire fire of governance set by the GOP in this recent shutdown contretemps. But now that the government is open again, attention will inevitably swing back to the troubled rollout of the website, where real skepticism is already mounting.

The rest of the agenda will simply be at the mercy of a GOP caucus whose members are titanically angry at having gotten nothing out of the shutdown war they waged. Oh, and let's not forget, everyone is supposed to negotiate a budget as well! I'm sure that will be super-easy this time around!

The future of shutdown/debt-ceiling crises

Will vulnerable Americans be spared a future iteration of this month's government shutdown/debt-ceiling crisis? Don't bet on it. The next deadlines already loom: Jan. 15, 2014, is the next potential shutdown date, and Feb. 7, 2014, is the date at which the Treasury will once again have to take extraordinary measures to manage U.S. credit.

We're already cruising (Cruzing?) in the direction of a rerun of the past month's miseries. At least one GOP representative, Tom Fleming (R-La.) has already suggested that "we're going to start this all over again," come January.

But a shutdown is the lesser of the two evils here. The really scary part remains the debt ceiling, the potential for default, and the terrors that follow from there in the global economy. Part of what the Obama administration had hoped to do in this round of standoffs was to end the normalization of debt-ceiling hostage-taking. The president has twice refused to negotiate on the debt ceiling, and twice managed to hold firm. The good news is that it only gets easier now for Obama to hold this line. The real question, though, is whether or not the apocalyptic fervor on the other side will fade.

Politico reports that part of the deal hashed out by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) includes a helpful provision:

The legislation also includes a McConnell-written proposal that would allow Congress to disapprove of the debt-ceiling increase. Lawmakers will formally vote on rejecting the bump of the borrowing limit -- if it passed, it could be vetoed by Obama.

In other words, Congress can do their debt-ceiling venting as extravagantly as they like. If they get a majority vote to do something irresponsible with the debt ceiling, Obama can veto it. Then, it would take the heavy lift of a veto override to put anyone in danger. But as Jonathan Chait notes, there's a mix of good and bad news here:

That mechanism would utterly defang the debt ceiling, returning it to its historical place as an opportunity for ineffectual posturing rather than extortion. Alas, it only applies to the next debt-ceiling vote.

Chait says, "Democrats hope that using this method this time will set a precedent that eases the way for Congress to make it a permanent procedure." But hope is not a plan. And as Felix Salmon frets, the problem with tamping down destructive inclinations toward the debt ceiling is that "you can’t just kill someone’s revolutionary nihilism":

The point here is that the zombie army, a/k/a the Tea Party, is a movement, not a person -- and it’s an aggressively anti-logical movement, at that. You can’t negotiate with a zombie -- and neither can you wheel out some kind of clever syllogism which will convince a group of revolutionary nihilists that it’s a bad idea to get into a fight if you’re reasonably convinced that you’re going to lose it. Spoiler alert: it turns out that Ed Norton was beating up himself, all along. When you’re Really Angry, sometimes losing a big fight against The Man is exactly what you feel like doing.

The default deniers have absolutely succeeded in adding to the population of people who believe a default is nothing to worry about -- or might even be a good thing. This "revolutionary nihilism," and all of its attendant ignorance, has achieved viral lift. For that reason alone, danger remains.

The future of electoral politics

And so we leave this discussion looking ahead to the 2014 midterms. Here, at the end of shutdown michegas, I'm seeing a lot of variations on the same theme.

Stu Rothenberg, while urging nobody to "jump the gun," nevertheless feels like he "can no longer say that" there isn't "compelling evidence that a Democratic political wave could be developing." Public Policy Polling re-ups with another package of polls suggesting that the shutdown melodrama has damaged GOP opportunities in the Senate. DCCC Chair Steve Israel tells Greg Sargent that the shutdown has been an unexpected boon to recruiting. And conservative columnist Rod Dreher has taken to declaring: "I cannot believe I'm saying this, but I hope the House flips to the Democrats in 2014, so we can be rid of these nuts."

Well, I really hate to break up a rollicking good premature consensus party, but I think the most important data point to consider here is that it's Oct. 17, 2013, and not, say, Oct. 17, 2014. What's running hot right now could very easily fade. And as far as 2014 goes, there are still a number of structural fundamentals that benefit the GOP.

Historically, the party who holds the White House loses seats in the midterms. Democratic voters, in general, don't turn out in large numbers in non-presidential election years. Those Democratic voters are highly concentrated in urban districts. Across the electoral map, the GOP continues to enjoy the benefits of redistricting. And if the larger business community is angry at the GOP for threatening the economy, the rub is that the GOP's most vulnerable legislators also happen to be the ones who are most amenable to the business community's point of view.

This is not to say that the GOP could end up damaging its brand badly enough to touch off a Democratic-wave election. And sure, there may be another government shutdown in January, and a few more after that. But while I'm always prepared to be wrong about this, I hold with those who say a mere string of government shutdowns may not be apocalyptic enough to cost the GOP its House majority. Now, if someone decides to try to impeach the president, then I'd say all bets are off.

But is it likely that someone in the GOP is going to go that far? Good God, people, could we please be realistic? An attempt to impeach the president, at this point, would be legally dubious -- just laughable. It would be politically calamitous. And in case you've forgotten, there aren't anywhere near enough votes in the Senate for conviction, in the event it even gets that far.

So, yeah, I give it even odds.

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