(MoneyWatch) The short-term
Yet if Main Street is worried, Wall Street isn't. The emerging view among investors, stock analysts and economists is that the partisan rancor that continues to divide Washington, while bitter as ever, is less likely to trigger paralysis next time around. Of course, financial markets are often wrong and even outright delusional, as the housing bubble showed. But of late the Street has guessed -- correctly -- that lawmakers would avert disaster.
"Wall Street has been through this a few times now," said Jim O'Sullivan, chief U.S. economist with High Frequency Economics. He cited the 2011 debt limit fight, "fiscal cliff" clash last year and other political brawls that disrupted financial markets. "Each time there's talk of Armageddon, and each time it's been averted."
Congress faces three major budget deadlines in the coming months, with Democrats and Republicans. By Dec. 13, a House-Senate conference committee must agree on a budget resolution outlining federal tax, spending and debt levels. Next, by Jan. 15, 2014, Congress must extend the government's spending authority, currently set at $986 billion, or face a second round of sequester cuts. Finally, the debt limit that lawmakers just increased expires on Feb. 7, 2014, again raising the risk that the U.S. could default on its legal obligations for the first time.
Here are five reasons why the debate next time around may be less divisive and economically disruptive:
1. Expectations are low. The House-Senate conference committee charged with thrashing out a budget resolution is almost certain to fail. After all, Congress hasn't passed a budget since 2009, and Democrats and Republicans remain far apart in their respective fiscal priorities.
"In our view, a grand bargain is virtually impossible until either one party controls the government or there is a 180-degree turn in the way the two parties work together," Bank of America Merrill Lynch analyst Ethan Harris said in a note to clients.
While such a legislative failure may frustrate Americans and impede fiscal progress, investors already expect the budget talks to founder. That guards against any headline-induced swings in the stock market. And while sequester cuts of $20 billion will kick in if talks do collapse, they aren't expected to gravely wound the economy.
2. The people have spoken.
3. Been there, haven't done that. The issue that sparked the latest fiscal battle -- the Affordable Care Act -- will have less force as a political rallying cry in 2014, when the landmark health law is fully implemented. Some hard-line conservatives will likely continue to try to weaken Obamacare, as the law is known, but top Republicans concede that gutting the program is now out of the question. Opponents of the law are more likely to wage a drawn-out guerrilla war than engage in another politically costly frontal assault.
"We think Republican leaders are unlikely to allow an extreme outcome like a government shutdown or debt limit crisis over Obamacare changes again," said Goldman Sachs analyst Alec Phillips in a research note.
4. Third time's a charm. Since November, Congress has raised the debt ceiling twice, both times without making large policy changes. Phillips said that precedent will make it hard for Republicans to demand major policy concessions when it is time to raise the borrowing cap next year.
5. The tax man cometh. The nominal deadline to raise the debt ceiling is Feb. 7, but analysts think the U.S. Treasury can deploy "extraordinary measures" to ensure that the U.S. can pay its debts for several months beyond that date. By then, tax revenue will have started replenishing the government's coffers, lowering the risk of default.
To be sure, the fiscal feuding will continue. And, while Wall Street remains confident about the outcome of these fiscal disputes, there is no certainty that the economy will escape unscathed. The partial government shutdown has reduced fourth-quarter economic growth by $24 billion, pushing down GDP by an annualized 0.6 percent, according to credit agency Standard & Poor's. Another spasm of factional infighting early next year would further erode the confidence of consumers and businesses.
The fiscal debate is sure to continue raging, but if market watchers are right, it may be with less ferocity.