Five scenarios for ending the shutdown impasse

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The last 17 government shutdowns in U.S. history all have at least one thing in common: They ended.

As the second day of the current shutdown begins, there’s no clear path forward. Republican and Democratic leaders remain entrenched in separate camps, with no serious negotiations ongoing to restart funding to the federal workforce.

But at some point, the impasse must come to an end. Here are five conceivable scenarios for drawing this exercise in Washington dysfunction to a close.

Scenario 1: Republicans fold:

In this scenario, at least some House Republicans would abandon their efforts to attach anti-Obamacare provisions to a government spending bill. Those Republicans would partner with House Democrats to amass the 217 votes needed to pass to the “clean,” unamended Senate version of the legislation.

Scenario 2: A short-term deal to fund some agencies: This scenario seems quite unlikely, with an attempt faltering in the House late Tuesday. The House GOP had proposed to fund the operation of most national parks, and Washington, D.C., city government and veterans’ services through Dec. 15. But the vote – which required a two-thirds majority – failed to pass. Even if it had advanced, the legislation wouldn’t have gotten far.

Scenario 3: The impasse lasts for weeks and spending bill negotiations are combined with debt limit negotiations: In this scenario, congressional leaders, having failed to solve the smaller problem of passing a short-term spending bill, decide to raise the stakes by solving both the debt limit and spending in one package deal. But the odds of a comprehensive deal seem slim.

Scenario 4: The fiscal impasse lasts until the government finally defaults on some of its debt: In this scenario, the shutdown continues through mid-October when the federal government reaches the end of its legal authority to borrow. It might be that the shock of a default on the debt ends up being the only thing that gets entrenched Democrats and Republicans to agree on a spending-and-debt accord.

Scenario 5: A long-term deal that solves bigger fiscal problems: This too seems like an implausible scenario given the high level of acrimony in Congress, but a large – if not “grand” – bargain on a spending bill could include solving a perennial nagging issue: the always-postponed annual cut in reimbursements to doctors who serve Medicare patients. Under a 1997 law, Medicare payments to doctors will be cut by nearly 30 percent unless Congress averts that before the end of the year. One might throw in another set of bargaining chips like a package of expiring tax provisions. But to clinch such an ambitious fiscal deal might require concessions from Democrats.

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