By GUY KOVNER
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
A partial federal government shutdown starting Tuesday is the likely outcome of this weekend’s Capitol Hill drama over federal spending and Obamacare, the Redwood Empire’s two Democratic congressmen said.
And if the core issues remain unresolved as an estimated 800,000 federal workers go on furlough and Point Reyes National Seashore closes, the shutdown could segue into a more serious scenario: a financial default by the U.S. government that could rock the stock market.
North Coast Rep. Jared Huffman of San Rafael said he thinks a shutdown of “some duration” is likely if the House and Senate fail to agree on a stopgap spending measure to cover the start of a new federal fiscal year on Tuesday.
Rep. Mike Thompson of Napa, describing himself as “the eternal optimist,” said he is “still hopeful cooler heads will prevail and a shutdown can be averted.”
But that prospect becomes “less and less likely,” he said, as conservative Republicans press their attack on President Barack Obama’s health care law.
“We are in for a very bumpy ride for the next couple of weeks,” Huffman said.
The stage for what Thompson labeled “high drama” was set Friday as the Democrat-controlled Senate approved a bill to pay for government operations through Nov. 15, stripped of Obamacare defunding measures previously approved by House Republicans.
The political ball returns to the House today, where Speaker John Boehner faces choices that range from backing the tea party-inspired campaign to thwart Obamacare to collaborating with the Democrats on a spending bill that averts the shutdown but could cost him his job.
The Republican-controlled House could opt for middle ground with a spending bill that includes a “limited repeal of Obamacare” in hopes it would be palatable to Democrats, Huffman said, attempting to handicap the other party’s actions.
But Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada emphatically told House Democrats on Wednesday that the Senate would not approve any measure that “delays or defunds Obamacare,” Huffman said.
The House is expected to convene today and Sunday, while the Senate scheduled its next session for Monday afternoon, 10 hours before a shutdown would begin.
If the Senate adheres to Reid’s line, House Republicans could either fold their anti-Obamacare cards and accept the Senate bill or trigger a shutdown.
If Boehner follows a path of compromise to avert a shutdown, Huffman said, he would “almost certainly” lose his leadership post, possibly to Virginia Republican Rep. Eric Cantor, a staunch advocate of defunding Obamacare.
“They feel like they are asserting themselves right now,” Huffman said, referring to the House tea party faction of about 80 members that appears to be taking its cues from Republican Sen. Ted Cruz, the conservative firebrand who mounted a 21-hour talkathon against Obamacare this week.
If there is a shutdown at midnight Monday, it is “going to rest 100 percent with the right wing of the GOP,” Huffman said. “Everybody knows that.”
At least two polls indicate the blame would be spread around. A CBS News/New York Times Poll found that 44 percent of Americans would blame Republicans and 35 percent Obama and Democrats, while a Pew Research Center Poll had it even closer with 39 percent blaming Republicans and 36 percent faulting the Obama administration.
An overwhelming majority of 80 percent in the CBS poll said it was “not acceptable” for a president or Congress to threaten a government shutdown during budget negotiations.
The last two government shutdowns, which furloughed as many as 800,000 federal employees in 1995-96, ended up costing $1.4 billion, according to a Congressional Research Service analysis.
Most of that cost came from Congress’ decision to grant back pay to the furloughed workers, but observers say there’s no guarantee that would be repeated by the conservatives of the 113th Congress.
Mail will be delivered and air traffic control and border security would be maintained during a shutdown, Huffman said.
Social Security checks will be mailed and Medicare coverage will continue, but citizens seeking to enroll in those programs may have no one to call, he said.
North Bay government contractors, including some in Sonoma County, might lose funding, Thompson said.
Hundreds of national parks and monuments, including Point Reyes Seashore, would close, just as they did during the 1995-96 shutdown.
If Republicans don’t get what they want in the budget battle, Thompson and Huffman said, the Obamacare defunding effort will shift to the debt ceiling, which needs to be raised from the current $16.7 trillion level before Oct. 17.
Absent an agreement on the debt ceiling, the government could no longer borrow money and could eventually suspend any expenditures, including Social Security payments and wages for U.S. troops, Huffman said.
“The government would have to scramble” to meet its obligations, said Robert Eyler, a Sonoma State University economist.
The prospect of government defaults also would trigger a sharp drop in the stock market, which many analysts already believe is due for a correction, he said.
“I’ve never seen this type of willful recklessness,” Thompson, said, referring to the tea party’s embrace of brinksmanship. “They’ve pulled the pin and they’re holding the grenade.”
You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 521-5457 or email@example.com.