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OPINION - Why this government shutdown may be different

by Chris Conley

NEWS BLOG (WSAU) This time the government shutdown will be different.

The last time we went down this road was 1997. You may remember the personalities, but not the specifics. Bill Clinton was in the White House. Newt Gingrich was Speaker of the House, emboldened by a large GOP freshman class that gave him a majority. The issue was the federal budget. Republicans wanted a seven year plan to balance the budget, based on Congressional Budget Office numbers. Clinton said he also wanted a balanced budget, but with a longer timeframe to get there.

Under those circumstances there are dozens of areas for potential compromises. Some spending can be shifted off-budget. Taxes can be raised. Even better, fees can be raised. Programs can be reformed, combined, dropped… Most importantly, there are more than enough combinations of choices where give-and-take negotiations can take place once the initial phase of posturing plays itself out. In the end, both sides can claim victory.

It took 21 days to get there. A Compromise budget was passed. Public perception was that Clinton “won” the standoff. That’s usually the way these things play out, since the President speaks with one voice and has the bully pulpit versus a Congress with multiple personalities and positions.

But what we’re facing now is a binary yes-or-no choice about Obamacare. There are fewer areas for compromise because on a black or white issue there is going to be a political winner or loser. If Obamacare is delayed, it’s a victory for Republicans. If Obamacare takes effect as scheduled, it’s a win for the White House.

Both sides have some ammo that makes them want to hold out. A government shutdown starves Obamacare of some of the money it needs, and takes the push to sign people up off the front burner. Republicans could think time works in their favor, if they stick together. A big if. On the other hand, the White House cannot allow a one year delay. An October 2014 implementation is one month away from mid-term elections. The ballots to be cast would be a referendum on healthcare. And the Administration would have very little time for troubleshoot problems and get the new program running smoothly, if that’s even possible.

From a purely strategic point of view, President Obama could agree to a short Obamacare delay to keep the issue out of the election cycle and demand something significant in return – like a trouble-free debt ceiling increase. Aside from that, there are few pathways to compromise. Hunker down… this government shutdown could be a long one.

Chris Conley