Government shutdown over 'Obamacare': What will happen next?

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President Obama and congressional Republicans will now engage in a public debate over who is to blame for the government shutdown that started at midnight, with each side planning to blast the other and try to force concessions by getting the American public on their side.

Republicans will press the case that “Obamacare,” the president’s signature health care law, is unpopular and any agreement to fund the government should include some kind of limit to the law, an argument President Obama and congressional Democrats firmly reject. Federal workers, visitors to national parks and millions of other Americans will have their lives disrupted by the failure to reach any kind of agreement.

It’s not clear how long the shutdown will last because that will depend on the leverage each side gains from a shutdown. Polls show a majority of Americans oppose shutting down the government to stop Obamacare, putting the president in a strong position in this debate. Many prominent Republicans, such as Arizona Sen. John McCain, have criticized their own party’s stance, arguing that Obama won the election, has a mandate to implement his health care law and will never sign a bill that severely weakens a health care law with his name on it. And those veteran Republicans, recalling the budget fights of the 1990s, believe that a president always has the advantage in these debates because of the bully pulpit of the White House.

But there’s one major difference between 1995 and 2012: the Tea Party. Back in 1995, House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Bill Clinton were the primary negotiators over government funding. Now, rank-and-file conservatives in Congress are eager for a fight, determined to blunt the health care law. There is little sign they will support a government funding bill that does not gut Obamacare. And House Speaker John A. Boehner seems unwilling to take on these conservatives and push them to accept that Obamacare will be impossible to repeal.

So what will happen next? No one, even in Washington, really knows.

White House officials and even some Republicans have been shocked by the intensity of GOP determination to limit Obamacare. Some Republicans, in turn, have been surprised by the pointed refusal of Obama to negotiate with them, as he usually does. Even if polls show the public overall blames Republicans for the shutdown, Tea Party Republicans in Congress may ignore or not absorb that evidence: many of them live and work in a conservative bubble, watching Fox News, reading conservative web sites and blogs and speaking largely to other Republicans.

And many of the most conservative members of Congress represent highly conservative districts, so they are unlikely to get pressure from their constituents to compromise with Obama.

The most likely outcome is that, over the next week, a bloc of most Democrats and some Republicans vote in the House of Representatives for a government funding bill that does not include any kind of language limiting Obamacare. The Senate has already approved such legislation, and Obama would sign it. But such an outcome requires Boehner to buck conservative members and activists who want him to stop Obamacare at all costs. He is likely to eventually do that, but in the time before he accepts that reality, federal workers will face furloughs.