OK, I’m a bit confused. The coverage of Congress’s return to Washington this week has been heavy on talk of jobs, and has (correctly) talked about the expiring highway and FAA authorizations, but there’s really very little about what I have expected to be this month’s major topic: the possibility of a government shutdown as the new fiscal year ends. See, for example, WaPo’s Felicia Sonmez.

Congress has certainly not made much progress on Appropriations bills; the House has passed only six, and the Senate has passed its version of one of those. So it seems unlikely that even one Appropriations bill will be signed into law by the end of the month. And yet we’re certainly under a month away from a possible shutdown. So what explains the lack of hype about it?

It could be that everyone “knows” that Congress will pass a clean spending extension (a continuing resolution,or “CR”) that will postpone the deadline for several weeks while keeping current spending levels and policy in place.

Or, it could be that everyone “knows” that Barack Obama will be willing to sign (and the Senate willing to pass) a short-term CR that would incorporate House-passed new spending levels and policy changes.

As the scare quotes indicate, it’s possible that everyone believes one of these things is going to happen but that everyone is wrong.

My guess, however, is that the correct answer is a third possibility: that a major showdown is in the works, but so far none of the players believe it’s in their interests to publicize it.

There was some reporting earlier in August that Democratic and Republican leadership would all be satisfied with the spending totals agreed to in the debt limit deal, at least while the Joint Select Committee is still at work. In other words, in this context a “clean” extension wouldn’t be FY2011 spending levels, but the caps supposed by the debt-limit agreement. Assuming that’s true, it’s still not at all certain that rank-and-file Republicans in the House would be willing to vote for those totals in a CR extension. After all, for many Tea Partiers, voting affirmatively for any government spending is a tough call. And for House liberals, the new totals are too low in many areas, and at any rate as the minority party they have no interest in supplying the votes. In other words, no matter what leadership wants, the dynamics of these votes are the same as those that almost led to a shutdown in the spring.

But as I’ve said before, I’m more concerned that policy riders will lead to a shutdown this time around, anyway. House leaders backed off of several riders in the spring — on abortion, EPA, and other stuff — and all of that is coming back this time around. Or at least could come around. Indeed, some of it is already in House-passed appropriations bills.

So that goes back to the question of why none of the players are hyping all of this. Begin with John Boehner. These kinds of crisis points, as we’ve seen before, are very dangerous for him, since they eventually require a high-visibility compromise with the White House that will be perceived as selling out conservatives. Perhaps he’s hoping that he can, essentially, sneak a clean CR through without anyone noticing. Or at least, with as few groups as possible noticing and placing demands on the bill that will eventually have to be compromised away. Note too that the regulation agenda that Boehner and Eric Cantor plan for the fall, with apparently free-standing votes on repealing or preventing certain regulations, can be interpreted as an effort to prevent his conference from insisting on adding those provisions as policy riders on Appropriations bills.

Barack Obama doesn’t want another showdown because the odds are that he’ll take some of the blame for it among voters, even if Republicans get more of that blame. And if there is to be a showdown, he may prefer minimizing the hype in order to minimize the damage.

As for Tea Partiers and other conservative Members of the House, even if they intend to continue their strategy of brinkmanship, they might not want to announce that in advance — because if they announce they’re willing to shut down the government, then they’re apt to take the most blame if it happens.

Again, it’s certainly possible that one of the first two scenarios (Tea Partiers cave/Obama caves) is what’s going to happen, and reporters are right to downplay it. But my guess is that we’re in for more deadline craziness, and soon.

[Cross-posted at A plain blog about politics]

Jonathan Bernstein

Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics, especially the presidency, Congress, parties, and elections.