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Countdown to Shutdown: "Nobody Knows How This Will End"

Are we headed for a government shutdown? My colleague Noam Scheiber thinks so. And, in his latest dispatch, he makes an awfully good case. 

To review the situation: Democrats and Republicans are far apart on spending issues. More important, perhaps, Republicans continue to insist they won’t continue funding government operations—or, when the time comes, increase the Treasury Department’s borrowing authority—until Democrats agree to defund or delay Obamacare. That’s simply not going to happen. No, this isn’t the first fiscal policy standoff of the Obama presidency. In the past, Democrats and Republicans always reached some last-minute agreement. But this time, Noam explains, each side has a lot less incentive to compromise. (Why? Read the article and you can see for yourself.)

I suspect Noam is right—and one reason is something I heard a little over a week ago, in an interview with somebody in the loop. During the spring, as you may recall, Obama made a big show of reaching out to Republican senators. Most famously, he invited about a dozen of them to dinner at the Jefferson Hotel. The invite list wasn't random: It consisted of Republicans who, although bona fide conservatives, had either shown a willingness to work with the administration, represented less conservative states, or shared frustrations with the cuts from budget sequestration. Among those dining and then talking with the president were Saxby Chambliss, Tom Coburn, Lindsey Graham, and John McCain. The idea was to start a running dialogue with these senators—a dialogue that might lead to some kind of agreement on spending, maybe even one that replaced part of the sequester or included a little investment in administration priorities. 

But after these same senators met with Obama in late August, they announced that the talks would end. It seemed like the kind of thing that the Republicans might say for the sake of appearances—negotiating with Obama doesn’t make for great press on the right, after all. But, according to a somebody who speaks with both the White House and Democratic leadership in Congress on a regular basis, even backroom talks have stopped. “The breakdown is more extensive than you’ve heard,” this person told me. “There is no discussion going on at all at this point.” I asked the source how this breakdown compares to the state of discussion prior to the other confrontations.

“Nobody knows how this will end,” the person said. “I’m not sure I remember a time when sides were as far apart as this.”

Jonathan Cohn is a senior editor at the New Republic. Follow him on twitter @CitizenCohn