The U.S. Government May Shut Down (Again). Here's What to Know

DC BUDGET STANDOFF

The U.S. Capitol is reflected in a puddle next to the Capitol Reflecting Pool in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Tuesday, Oct. 15, 2013.

Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg
  • Congress faces Oct. 1 deadline to overcome spending impasse
  • Some Republicans target Planned Parenthood over fetal tissue

It may seem like only yesterday that the U.S. government shut down (actually, it was 2013), followed by promises from Republicans and Democrats alike: Never again.

Turns out never again may be next month.

Inside the Obama administration there is growing concern that Congress will be unable to resolve differences over the U.S. budget by Oct. 1, the start of the 2016 fiscal year, and will stumble into a shutdown though Republican leaders insist they don’t want one. Already, both sides have begun public relations campaigns to pin blame on the other.

Here are some questions and a few answers about how we got here and what’s at issue:

Q. So why do we have to care about this again?
A. Two separate disputes have become intertwined. The White House says government-wide automatic spending cuts known as sequestration are hurting the economy, and that President Barack Obama will no longer sign bills that continue them. Republicans want government funding cut off for Planned Parenthood, the women’s health provider whose services include abortion.

Q. Sequestration, right. What’s that again?
A. Back in 2011 Congress and Obama agreed to resolve a political crisis over the U.S. debt by creating a special committee of lawmakers to recommend ways to reduce spending. They couldn’t agree. So instead we got caps on domestic and military spending. The Congressional Budget Office says federal spending would increase $979 billion over the next decade if those limits are lifted. Sequestration is the technical term for the process that would be used if spending exceeds the limits.

Even some Republicans, notably the House Appropriations Committee Chairman, Hal Rogers of Kentucky, want to get rid of the caps, especially for the military.

Q. And what’s the deal with Planned Parenthood?
A. This summer, an anti-abortion group called the Center for Medical Progress released hidden-camera videos of Planned Parenthood executives discussing reimbursement for providing tissue from aborted fetuses to researchers. Conservatives were outraged and have demanded that Republicans stop federal funding for the group. Planned Parenthood denies that it sells fetal tissue and it’s forbidden from using federal money to pay for abortions.

Q. Is there a deadline to resolve all of this?
A. Yes. The current federal fiscal year ends Sept. 30. Without new appropriations, federal agencies won’t have authority to spend money starting the next day, with some exceptions for services that are considered essential such as the military, law enforcement and air traffic control.

Q. I hear Ted Cruz is involved. Didn’t he have something to do with the last shutdown?
A. That’s right. In September 2013, Republicans led by the Texas senator -- who is now running for president -- insisted on shutting off spending for the Affordable Care Act. (You may recall him reading Dr. Seuss’s "Green Eggs and Ham" from the Senate floor.) Obama refused, and the government closed down for the first 16 days of October. Hundreds of thousands of federal employees and contractors were furloughed and federal services including national parks were closed. Republicans relented after public opinion turned against them.

Q. Republicans lost in the last shutdown. Who will get the blame this time?
A. Republicans, probably. Right now, about 41 percent of Americans say they’d blame congressional Republicans for a shutdown, according to a Quinnipiac University poll released Aug. 31. Thirty-three percent say they’d blame Obama or congressional Democrats. The rest don’t know or would blame both sides.

“Republicans are going to get blamed for a shutdown, no matter what happens, by the general public,” said Stan Collender, a budget analyst and executive vice president at Qorvis MSLGroup in Washington. “They have too much baggage, too much history and it only seems to happen on their watch. But I don’t think they care.”

Q. So do they care?
A. Their leaders do. House Speaker John Boehner, an Ohio Republican, has told members of his party that he doesn’t want another shutdown, Representative Charlie Dent of Pennsylvania, a relatively moderate member of the party, said on Wednesday. Kentucky Republican Mitch McConnell, the Senate Majority Leader, has vowed there won’t be a shutdown.

Q. Then why would there be a shutdown?
A. Because Republican leaders can’t always control their rank-and-file members. Remember Cruz? He’s leading the effort to deny money to Planned Parenthood this year.

Q. Is there a way out of this?
A. Maybe. Republican and Democratic leaders are discussing a stopgap measure called a "continuing resolution" that would keep the government running after Sept. 30 and give them more time to work out a deal on a full-year plan. But some Republicans say they won’t even support a short-term bill unless it cuts off money for Planned Parenthood.

Q. I’m a Republican. Can I blame Obama and the Democrats for this?
A. Sure. Obama’s threatened to veto every fiscal 2016 spending bill that House and Senate Republicans have produced so far, generally because he wants to spend more money. And House Democrats say they’ll help pass a short-term bill -- if it doesn’t eliminate funding for Planned Parenthood and if they’re part of negotiations on a full-year plan that raises spending for domestic programs such as health care, welfare and education.

“Congress can pass a budget that does away with this so-called sequester that just lops things off whether it’s good or not for the economy, harms our military, hurts working people,” Obama said Monday in a speech to union workers in Boston. “We could instead invest in working families, invest in our military readiness, invest in our schools, rebuild our roads, rebuild our ports, rebuild our airports, put people back to work right now. I’ll sign that budget. I’m ready to work with them.”

Q. I’m an investor. Should I panic?
A. Nope. “Three weeks is an eternity by Wall Street standards,” Collender said.

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