It's like fasting, says Paul Light, a New York University professor who specializes in the federal bureaucracy and budget. "The first couple of hours, not so bad. But just thinking back to Yom Kippur, by 3 o'clock you're saying 'Holy moly.' So I'm not yet willing to say, the sequester it wasn't that bad and therefore the shutdown wouldn't be that bad."
Whether there is another round of across-the-board reductions in January depends on the level of spending that Congress sets for this fiscal year. If lawmakers exceed sequestration spending caps when they finally pass a spending bill, another round of cuts will be required.
The president's health care law has nothing and everything to do with the budget battle. Conservative Republicans latched on to this fall's fiscal deadlines as the perfect leverage to reach a goal that's eluded them for three years, driving a stake through what they derisively call "Obamacare." So House Republicans approved a budget bill tied to a provision that would simultaneously defund it.
All sides know that strategy is doomed in the Democratic-controlled Senate, setting up the potential impasse that could lead to a government shutdown and/or standoff on the debt ceiling. Light says it's "beyond belief" that legislators would allow the government to default, with dire consequences for both the economy and their own political futures. "If the tea party forces a default and the economy collapses," he says, "that's a party that's going to be dead."
The budget battle sounds kind of like a movie called "Grim and Grimmer." But even downer movies usually have some comic relief.
Sure enough, comics are finding some laughs in the government's budget travails and the fight over Obama's health care law:
"President Obama warned that the government could shut down in two weeks. Obama added, 'Not because of a budget impasse but because we'll all be watching the last episode of "Breaking Bad.'''" Conan O'Brien.
"Obamacare is coming, folks. Run for your lives. No, wait. Don't run for your lives. That will make you healthier. And that is just what he wants." Stephen Colbert.
"If Republicans and Democrats can't get together, there's a strong possibility of a federal government shutdown. You know what the legal definition of that is? A government shutdown is when Congress continues not to work, but they do it from home." Jay Leno.
The people speak
If legislators decided to drop all the bluster and do what most people want, they could be in a pickle.
People don't know what they want. They are no help at all.
Almost three-quarters in a Washington Post/ABC News poll this month predicted serious harm to the economy if the government can't borrow more money to pay for its operations. Yet they were split on whether it's better for Congress to raise the debt limit (46 percent) to enable more borrowing or to default on paying its bills (43 percent).
So a significant share essentially said: terrible idea, go for it.
In an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll this month, only 22 percent said Congress should raise the debt ceiling, 44 percent said it shouldn't and fully 33 percent said they didn't know enough to have an opinion, despite being given a description of how the debt ceiling works.
In a Pew Research poll this week, most respondents (57 percent) said the lawmakers they agree with on budget issues should be willing to compromise to get an agreement. Only one-third wanted them to stick to their principles to the point of closing parts of the government. Fine, but compromise how?
The public is no guide when it comes to the nitty-gritty of cutting spending, public opinion research has found for years. People love the idea but don't love higher taxes, and they want their roads, schools, Social Security checks, Medicare, armed forces, food inspectors, safe flights, cleaner water and so on.
Who gets the blame for a government shutdown could well depend on whether the conventional wisdom is right.
Democrats believe, and many Republicans fear, that the GOP will take the hit, because they did last time, in 1995-1996.
There's little question Republicans lost the last showdown. After all, they ended up settling for a deal very close to the one President Bill Clinton was offering before parts of the government closed for a week in late 1995 and three weeks in early 1996. Less clear is the political toll that exacted on the GOP. Clinton, whose presidency had once seemed on the ropes, won a second term months later. Even so, Republicans held on to their House and Senate majorities in that election.
A leading poll during that showdown found 47 percent blamed Republican leaders in Congress for the shutdown, 25 percent blamed Clinton and 21 percent said both sides were equally to blame. Advantage Clinton.
But another poll, taken when the dust settled, found little change in the public's perceptions of Congress or Clinton. The president came out of it with the same approval rating as before the crisis, 47 percent, and Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich emerged with the same disapproval rating as before, 57 percent.
There's no guarantee, of course, that public opinion history will repeat itself.
In the Pew poll this week, close to as many are blaming Obama (36 percent) for the potential shutdown as are blaming the Republicans (39 percent), and 17 percent found equal fault with both sides.
The health care law will survive. Beyond that, there's a lot of uncertainty. Many people think legislators motivated by self-preservation will pull off some kind of last-minute compromise to avoid both the government shutdown and the default. But then again, a lot of people never thought the sequester would take effect, either.
Associated Press writers Stacy A. Anderson and Jennifer Agiesta contributed to this report.
Follow Nancy Benac on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/nbenac
Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
Original headline: Why you should care about latest govt budget fight
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