Government Shutdown Showdown 2013: a Primer

PHOTO: Looming Government Shutdown

Admit it: You don't know a CR from a sequester, and you think a debt ceiling might be something you build in a loft apartment. So, here's what's really going on in the latest fiscal mess that's gripping Washington.

WHAT'S THE BIG PICTURE?

This is as basic as it gets: Will our elected representatives do their jobs? We're talking about just keeping the government lights on, and paying bills we've already racked up. This is another in a round of self-inflicted fiscal crises -- deadlines set by lawmakers and then, possibly, blown past by those same lawmakers' inaction -- and it might be the most consequential clash yet.

More broadly, this is a fight that tests competing visions of government. Voters sent conflicting messages in successive elections, and now we have deeply a divided government. In a split country, both parties believe they have a mandate, which has driven the repeated confrontations. Everyone thinks he's right, and that the other person should come to her senses.

Meanwhile, inside the Republican Party, a new band of conservatives, many associated with the tea party movement, is intent on using this as a moment of leverage. The mission is to drive down government spending, and also find a back-door way to repeal the Obama health care law, just as it's going into effect. Our economy is hanging in the balance.

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WHAT ARE THE DEADLINES?

The fiscal fight is actually over two different but somewhat related matters, so there are two important deadlines, plus a bonus deadline that's also in the mix.

The first deadline is Sept. 30. That's the date that virtually all funding for federal government operations runs out. Going pass that date without at least a temporary fix -- known as a "continuing resolution," or a CR -- means a government shutdown. That doesn't actually mean the government shuts down (more on that later), but all "non-essential" government services would cease to be provided, and upwards of a million federal workers would be furloughed.

That last happened in late 1995-early 1996, although we came close to it happening again in 2011.

The other deadline is a little softer, but it's expected to come in mid-late October. That's when the federal government runs up against the debt limit.

This is the country maxing out on its credit card. Actually, we reached the $16.7 trillion debt ceiling back in May, but the Treasury Department has been creatively shuffling money around for the past few months. Treasury Secretary Jack Lew has indicated he will run out of such options about a month from now.

The United States is among the few countries where the legislative branch sets a debt limit to accommodate money that's already being spent. Such votes have been slightly uncomfortable formalities in the past, although Barack Obama was among the large number of opposing-party senators to have voted against a debt-ceiling increase.

And although he negotiated with Republicans on a previous debt-ceiling increase, the president has said he refuses to do so this time. He is calling on Congress simply to do the job it has done with little fanfare in the past.

One other relevant deadline: The new state insurance exchanges set up under the Obama health care law start Oct. 1. That has put fresh urgency into efforts to defund or otherwise frustrate the launch of a law that largely goes into effect in 2014.

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WHAT'S GOING ON NOW?

Get ready for some legislative ping-pong, with some poker sprinkled in.

The House approved this morning a three-month "continuing resolution" to fund the government through the rest of 2013. But there's a big caveat: The bill explicitly denies funding for the implementation of Obamacare. President Obama has issued a veto threat, and leaders of the Democratic-controlled Senate have indicated they won't go along with the ploy.

The Senate next week will vote on the bill to keep the government open. But that's expected to take out the prohibition on funding for Obamacare. Then the question comes back to the GOP-controlled House: Would they rather shut down the government, or allow the new health care law to proceed?

House Speaker John Boehner actually wanted to choose the latter option already, but he was slapped down by rank-and-file Republicans who are insisting on taking a stand against funding Obamacare. Unless Senate Democrats or the White House caves, Boehner might have to lean on Democratic votes to keep the government open.

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