While both parties plot their strategies behind the scenes, the possible paths to a resolution are becoming more evident -- in part because they’ve happened before.
The Senate jam played out at the last fiscal deadline, the combination of expiring tax cuts and scheduled spending reductions at the end of 2012.
Then, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and Vice President Joe Biden decided which taxpayers would have higher burdens and the Republican-controlled House accepted with only a minority of Republicans voting yes.
This time around, on the debt limit, House Speaker John Boehner faces the risk of a replay.
Just last month, Republicans rallied behind a bill that defunded the health law, as urged by Republican Senator Ted Cruz. It passed the House and then Senate Democrats and some Republicans agreed to cut off debate on a 79-19 vote, leading to a party-line vote to strip out the Obamacare defunding.
Repeat that bipartisan pathway on the debt ceiling, and Boehner could be left with a debt-limit increase, none of the policy conditions he wants and the clock ticking toward a default he’s already said he won’t allow. The speaker’s big decision, as the person who controls the House floor, would be whether to allow a vote.
“‘When you get close to that deadline, you’re really playing with fire,” said Senator Charles Schumer, a New York Democrat. “It’s not like the government shutdown.”
That prospect of changing a House proposal might be the reason that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid hasn’t started what could be a week-long process of getting a debt-limit bill without conditions ready for a final Senate vote.
To advance his bill -- as opposed to ending debate on a House bill full of Republican priorities -- Reid probably would have to overcome procedural hurdles requiring 60 votes. That means he would need the support of six Republicans and might have to make policy concessions to get their votes.
Even then, the strength of a bipartisan consensus in the Senate could force Boehner’s hand and cause him to accept a deal engineered by Reid.
The second potential path is the complete cave, where one party yields to public pressure. That’s what both parties are trying for now as the standoff continues.
Republicans say they think they can move Obama off his no-negotiations stance in two ways. First, they’re passing separate bills to fund parts of the government, trying to force Democrats to choose between programs they champion, such as national parks and infant nutrition, and the president’s insistence that the entire government be opened.
Republicans have had some success in this effort, getting some House Democrats to join them in voting for the measures.
“We are not going to pass a clean debt limit,” Boehner said yesterday in an interview on ABC’s “This Week” program. “The votes are not in the House to pass a clean debt limit.”
Second, Republicans are pointing out flaws in the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, as they insist on changes to the law as a condition of ending the shutdown. They’ve been bolstered by the computer problems that hampered the rollout of the insurance exchanges last week.