WASHINGTON - Sixteen days in October could change everything, or not much at all.
Will the partial government shutdown prove to be the turning point after three years of partisan skirmishing in Washington? Or was it just a halftime show to fire up the players?
With federal employees back at work for now, lawmakers are getting a chance to find a compromise on spending cuts and settle their vast differences. If they fail, they risk a repeat shutdown in mid-January, followed a few weeks later by the recurring danger of the government defaulting on its debts.
A look at where things stand after the shutdown:
- President Barack Obama won a round by refusing to back down. The public didn't applaud his handling of the crisis, but scored congressional Republicans even lower. Obama's overall approval rating held steady, and so did the nation's divided opinion of his health care law. He strengthened his hand for next time.
- House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, conceded a loss for his party. But personally he came out OK. Boehner placated his boisterous tea party-backed members by letting them take a doomed stand against the health law, then got credit for finally allowing the shutdown to end on mostly Democratic votes.
- Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, made a name for himself by leading the tea party charge toward shutdown. About half of the respondents in a recent Associated Press-GfK poll knew enough about Cruz to form an opinion -- impressive for a senator elected less than a year ago. The bad news for Cruz? Their opinion was negative by a 2-1 margin.
- Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky is catching heat for helping reopen the government. McConnell agrees with many of his fellow GOP senators that the shutdown was bad strategy and must not be repeated. That puts him on the wrong side of the party's tea party wing, and a tea party-backed candidate is challenging McConnell in the primary for his Senate seat.
The tea party, billed as a movement of the people, is getting slammed in national polls. Democrats say its belligerent tactics have been discredited. Much of the Republican establishment agrees.
Tea party lawmakers don't care.
Tea party favorites in Congress are more focused on the opinions of voters back home, their big money supporters and outside groups, such as Heritage Action, that influence elections.
Cruz, criticized by many fellow Republicans for fomenting the standoff, says he's content to be "reviled in Washington, D.C., and appreciated in Texas."
Cruz says he remains as determined as ever.
"I would do anything, and I will continue to do anything I can," he said, "to stop the train wreck that is Obamacare."
BIG VERSUS SMALL GOVERNMENT
Did Americans learn anything from the partial shutdown?
Obama says it showed just how many things, large and small, the government does to help people.
Conservatives saw the opposite lesson -- that federal workers can disappear without being missed.
There's some evidence for both ideas.
Lots of people were inconvenienced and some lives were seriously disrupted, but most Americans weren't personally touched by the shutdown. Less than one-third said someone in their home was affected, according to an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll conducted Oct. 7-9.
That doesn't mean they shrugged off the effects beyond their front door.
About two-thirds in that poll felt the shutdown was harming the economy. Consumer confidence dropped to its lowest level in more than a year, according to Gallup polling.
Forget turkey dinners and sleigh bells in the snow. Washington's new tradition is scaring holiday shoppers.
Last year politicians slowed sales by hanging the threat of a "fiscal cliff" over the holiday season, before working out a deal in the new year.
This year, the government shutdown already has taken a toll. Economists and Standard & Poor's estimate that it cost the economy $24 billion, or about $75 for every U.S. resident.
Consumers may stay worried, especially if they hear bad news from Republican and Democratic lawmakers who are meeting over the next two months in hopes of reaching a spending deal to avert another fiscal standoff in January.
Sure, it's embarrassing. America's image took a hit. Other countries are snickering.
Obama says the latest spectacle depressed the nation's friends and heartened its enemies. But it shouldn't have surprised them much. The world has witnessed three years of stalemates and standoffs between Democrats and Republicans since the GOP won control of the House in 2010.
In the long view, the U.S. reputation, and especially its appeal for investors, doesn't dent easily. After all, where else can the world park its money? Treasury bonds have scant competition as the safest place to stash reserves.
The latest brouhaha should fade quickly because it stopped short of the feared outcome -- a default on Treasury bonds that would tarnish their spotless image.
If that threat remerges in January, the world will be watching.
HEALTH CARE LAW
Conservatives again failed to drive a stake through the heart of "Obamacare."
Indeed, the health law may have been strengthened by their latest attack.
The government shutdown was designed as a megaphone for critics of the law, but their timing was off. The uproar ended up distracting the public from the bungled rollout of a key portion of the health program -- the website people use to shop for insurance.
Despite computer problems that are keeping many would-be customers from signing up, overall impressions of the health care law have held steady in polls.
That doesn't mean the law is popular. It remains controversial, with Americans just as likely to say it was a bad idea as a good one.
Boehner says when it comes to defeating "Obamacare," Republicans won't give up.