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No Talks Underway To Resolve Shutdown

A sign announces the closing of the Statue of Liberty on Tuesday.
Mark Lennihan
A sign announces the closing of the Statue of Liberty on Tuesday.

If you're wondering how long the shutdown will last, well, don't hold your breath.

As of this writing, there are no indications that talks are underway — or even in the offing.

Indeed, the Democratic-controlled Senate rejected House legislation Tuesday morning calling for a House-Senate conference to try to settle the disagreement behind the first federal government shutdown in 17 years.

Senate Democrats spurned the House request because they reject Republican efforts to couple continued funding of the government to GOP attempts to hamstring the Affordable Care Act. Democrats insist they're not opposed to revising Obamacare; they're just not going to do it in the face of government-shutdown or debt-default threats.

"No matter how many times they try to extort the American people and the Democrats here in the Senate, we're not going to re-litigate the health care issue," Sen. Harry Reid said on the Senate floor, explaining why his Democrats voted down the House request for a conference. "We're not going to do that. If they have problems with [Obamacare] we'll be happy to sit down and talk with them about a reasonable approach to do that. But we're not going to with a gun to the heads of the American people."

It's unclear what the next move would be for Speaker John Boehner and his House Republican conference.

When the House came to life Tuesday afternoon, Boehner didn't exactly offer a detailed path for escaping the current crisis. "Our country has big problems. Today our government has big problems," he told the House. "The only way these problems are going to be resolved is if we sit down amicably and keep the American people in mind and come to an agreement."

Another uncertainty was how long the shutdown will last. Stan Collender, a partner at communications firm Qorvis and a former senior Capitol Hill aide, predicts the shutdown will last at least a week.

There were several reasons to think that the longer it lasts, the more difficult it will be for Republicans compared with Democrats.

One, Democrats — for the time being at least — appeared to have the advantage of a unified front. In politics, a unified party tends to have more leverage than a splintered party. Congressional Democrats are not only unified but have the president with them.

In contrast, some Republicans were openly questioning the House GOP strategy. Reps. Peter King of New York and Charlie Dent of Pennsylvania and Arizona Sen. John McCain were among the congressional Republicans who expressed doubts.

If Democrats remain united around the position that there will be no talks until the House passes the Senate's "clean" spending bill and reopens the government, that would mean Boehner would need to capitulate before the shutdown could end. Capitulation in this case would mean relying on some of his Republicans and House Democrats to get the required 217 votes to pass the spending bill.

That would certainly be embarrassing and could lead to another House GOP revolt against his leadership. But he may not have a choice.

Two, Democrats also appeared to have the advantage of public opinion, according to a new Quinnipiac poll, which found far many more people opposing an Obamacare-induced government shutdown than favoring it — 72 percent to 22 percent.

Republicans also have the burden of decades of anti-government rhetoric that will very likely make their attempts to blame the shutdown on Democrats a harder message for them to sell.

Even now, with the shutdown newly upon the nation, the Republican message that Democrats were to blame was being muddied by GOP rhetoric. Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., said during a Fox News interview: "You may see a partial shutdown for several days. People are going to realize they can live with a lot less government."

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Frank James joined NPR News in April 2009 to launch the blog, "The Two-Way," with co-blogger Mark Memmott.
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