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Why The Government Probably Isn't Going to Shut Down This Weekend (We Think) | The Washington Post

When we last left you in this series, congressional budget experts told The Fix that the government looked more likely than not to shut down over partisan bickering at midnight Oct. 1.

But Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) changed all that when he suddenly announced his resignation, taking the wind out of the sails of conservatives who threatened to oust him if he didn't agree with their demands.

On his way out the door, Boehner worked mostly with congressional Democrats and the White House to pass a two-year budget deal that also raised the debt ceiling into 2017. Then Congress elected a new speaker, Rep. Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.), and gave itself until midnight Friday to put actual dollars to that budget framework.

Attempting to pass that spending bill this week is Congress's latest challenge. And, so, we're arguably right back where we started in September: on shutdown watch.

The political dynamics that led experts to predict a shutdown this fall haven't substantially changed. Ryan faces the same pressures from conservative lawmakers and Democrats as Boehner did. Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle would love to use the spending bill to send political messages, including: No funding of the agency that handles refugees until the Obama administration can confirm that its process for vetting Syrian refugees is safe. Limit the Environmental Protection Agency's efforts to control greenhouse gas emissions. Whether to lift the ban on U.S. oil exports.

Even  cutting off funds for Planned Parenthood, the women's health nonprofit that was the subject of antiabortion advocates' ire this summer, could be in the mix.

All of that said, this time around, our congressional budget experts think the dynamics are just different enough that these lawmakers' demands are unlikely to stop the spending bill process. At the same time, no one knows for certain what will happen.

Even so, our experts are betting that the government is more likely than not to stay open as Friday turns to Saturday. Here's why:

(Ed. note: The Fix will be on shutdown watch until some kind of deal is passed. If any of our experts' predictions change, we'll update this post, so bookmark it!)

Congress is first passing a short-term spending deal

Normally, this would be a bad sign. Congress practically lives on short-term spending bills, which carry over last year's budget to next year's. It's how they got to Friday's deadline, and it's what Ryan said Congress will need to pass by Friday instead of a two-year deal.

But this time, falling back again on a short-term bill could actually be a good sign, says Molly Reynolds, a governance expert at the Brookings Institution.

She thinks it means lawmakers are actually close to a long-term deal and just need a little more time.

In asking for more time-- Dec. 16 is the latest deadline -- they are signaling that a deal that has enough support to pass Congress and get President Obama's signature is imminent. That also has the potential effect of tamping down on some lawmakers' efforts to champion issues that could cause a shutdown: Why pick up a fight you know you're going to lose?

"I take this as a sign they're getting closer," Reynolds said. "There just might be some hang-ups."

Worst case in this scenario, says budget expert Stan Collender: Lawmakers don't have a deal by Friday but think they can get it done over the weekend, so they decide not to pass a short-term spending bill and effectively create a shutdown Saturday and Sunday. But even then, "the only people who would notice are those going to a national park," Collender says.

This spending bill debate is between Republicans and Democrats and not an intra-GOP fight

The sticking points that are holding up negotiators this week are unlikely to resemble some of the intraparty fights that have caused or threatened to cause a government shutdown in the past.

That's because some issues — such as whether to raise the debt ceiling or how to deal with arbitrary spending cuts that grew out of a 2011 "fiscal cliff" — are already settled in the budget blueprint Congress passed in late October.

Theoretically speaking* (see caveat below), all that's left for Congress to do is allocate dollars to the mission statements laid out in the budget.

There's a strong chance that conservatives won't be happy with what negotiators come up with: The budget on which the spending bill will be modeled was passed in the House with 187 Democrats and just 79 Republicans.

But party leaders know this, and they're working to ensure that what they come up with can get enough support from Democrats to carry the bill; in order words, they're trying to strike a good, old-fashioned bipartisan compromise.

If that happens, those lawmakers unhappy with the spending bill don't have a ton of tools at their disposal to stop it — except to start the whole process over again by trying to oust another speaker.

Our experts don't think conservatives are up to that this time around; they say there's enough goodwill among Republicans for their new speaker to let him try to pass a spending bill, even if it is supported mostly by Democrats.

Republican leaders really don't want a shutdown

Two budget experts The Fix spoke to said 2016 is weighing heavily on congressional Republicans' minds. The presidential election is just 11 months away, and the party's dream of being able to take back the White House after eight long years in the dark is within sight.

Right now, the issues being debated on the national stage — national security and terrorism — tend to favor Republicans. Why mess that up with a scene-stealing government shutdown under Republicans' watch?

"Republicans know they will own a shutdown," said former top Senate Democratic aide Jim Manley, "and that doing so will divert attention from Obama and his failed ISIS policies – their words not mine."

"Republicans have finally learned something," said Steve Bell, a former top Senate Republican aide and the director of economic policy at the Bipartisan Policy Center. "Shutting down the government is not good for their chances."

Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) are hoping the rest of their party see the long game and get in line to pass this spending bill. Or at least not try to stop it.

But …

As always, we end any attempts to predict what's going to happen in Congress with a giant caveat.

And that is that anything could happen — any issue could suddenly become the issue and rally enough lawmakers to stop the entire carefully negotiated process in its tracks. (Few predicted refugee resettlement — once a nonpartisan budget item — would be as big an issue as it is today, for example.)

"The differences – and there are many – are about riders not money," said Maya MacGuineas, president of the bipartisan Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget. (Riders is D.C. speak for political issues like Planned Parenthood or Syrian refugees; policy proposals lawmakers want to add onto the spending bill to limit or dictate spending on these particular issues.)

Congressional leaders might well be close to producing an agreement that enough lawmakers can live with to keep the government open.

But they can't control what forces will suddenly shift the political debate between now and then. And that's why our experts say a government shutdown this week is unlikely — but can't be ruled out entirely.

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