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Majority Leader Harry Reid will have his work cut out for him next week balancing the competing demands of his caucus against a March 4 deadline to avert a government shutdown.
The coming fight over the controversial House-passed spending bill will test the Nevada Democrat’s hold on his smaller 53-47 majority as well as the gentlemen’s agreement he struck with Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) on allowing a more open amendment process than in the contentious 111th Congress.
Several moderate Senate Democrats told Roll Call they are considering supporting additional cuts beyond the domestic spending freeze that Reid and Senate Democratic leaders backed last week. The question isn’t whether those moderates would back the House Republican bill — Democrats appear united in opposition to that level of cuts as too extreme and dangerous with the economy still in the early stages of a recovery. Reid himself predicted no Democrat would back the House package as is. But Senate Republicans may be able to pick off enough Democrats to win votes on smaller packages of cuts as moderates look to burnish their fiscally conservative chops.
Reid has been preparing for the showdown for weeks, a Democratic leadership aide said. “He knew the work he would have ahead of him,” the aide said. “He started talking to his entire caucus early. ... I think the caucus is actually more united than you might normally expect, and I think that’s in large part because there’s been a lot of work done on the front end.”
Democrats used their retreat in Virginia to coalesce on a message of supporting some cuts while painting the House GOP as extreme.
Indeed, several moderates have begun using a talking point that the CR cuts $41 billion to $44 billion from President Barack Obama’s budget, depending on whether Pell Grants are included. That is an apples-to-apples comparison to the $100 billion in cuts touted by the House GOP as meeting their “Pledge to America.”
“The Republicans factor that into their $100 billion, but for whatever reason it doesn’t seem to count when Democrats do,” the aide said. “Already we’re meeting them halfway.”
Republican aides wondered how open Reid will allow the amendment process to be given the potential for Democratic defections. They also wondered whether Reid might try to require a 60-vote threshold for germane amendments, which would allow him to suffer more defections while still keeping control of the bill. But doing so would violate at least the spirit of openness and freewheeling debate that has been the order of the day so far on both sides of the Capitol.
A Senate Republican aide said it will be interesting to see how Democrats message their CR if they can’t stick together on leadership’s plans to “keep spending the same amount of money as they are now.”