Back from the brink?
The president has cancelled his travel plans and says he expects an answer on whether a government shutdown can be averted by Friday morning, Washington time. He says: "I'm not yet prepared to express wild optimism", but sounded stern about the consequences of failure, particularly damage to a fragile recovery. "For us to go backwards because Washington couldn't get its act together is unacceptable."
He could be simply preparing the way for failure and claiming the moral high ground. But If that was the case I think we would have heard from John Boehner, the Republican leader in the house. They appear to be on the edge of a deal. What to look for next is how enthusiastic or otherwise are the Tea Party about any such agreement. If there are very few moans then the Republican leadership will have pulled off something of a coup.
Both sides looked over the brink and didn't like what they saw. Or rather they couldn't peer through the fog of competing narratives to see what was at the bottom of the abysses. I tend to think that at the start the American people would blame "politicians" in general without bothering to distinguish their party.
Some Democrats think it would be a straight replay of the last shutdown in 1995. Newt Gingrich badly miscalculated, was blamed for the shutdown and was forced to give way. It was seen as a turning point in the Clinton presidency which had been in the doldrums until this victory. Incidentally it had another huge impact. During the shutdown, in an understaffed and quiet White House, one intern was at work and had an opportunity to be alone with the president. Bill met Monica and the presidency was never the same.
That aside, many think this wouldn't be a straight repeat of 95. Bill Walker, who's still close to Newt Gingrich, was an influential deputy chief whip at the time. He told me: "I think in many ways it would be different than 95, because I do get the feeling, when I'm back home in Pennsylvania, that people have come to the conclusion that when a country reaches the point that its debt is equal to its gross national product, that country is in trouble.
"I think the blame is likely to vastly more divided. Clearly, the partisans are going to come down on the side of their party affiliations, so the question is - where do the independents come down?
"And, by every measure, so far the independents have said they are extremely concerned about the situation we're in with regard to debt, so if they come to the conclusion that Republicans have stood on principle, i think the Republicans will get at least a percentage of the independent vote."
Perhaps this is so. But there are huge risks on both sides. Even if a breakdown is averted today, there are many more moments yet to come over budget, debt and deficit. Late night crisis meetings at the White House may become a fixture.