Updated 2:04 p.m. | Voting on a continuing resolution that defunds Obamacare is a non-starter for Democrats, but what about a short-term spending bill that only funds the government at current sequester levels?
It's not clear whether the House Democratic Caucus is collectively prepared to draw that line in the sand — and their votes could prove critical to keeping the government open.
After both chambers spar over a new House Republican plan to defund Obamacare in a $986 billion CR to run through Dec. 15, conventional wisdom holds that an eleventh-hour compromise will involve passing a rider-free bill that holds spending at that status quo to avert a government shutdown on Sept. 30.
And if that happens, Democrats would be faced with a choice of whether they plug their noses and swallow the bitter pill to avoid a shutdown, given that many Republicans may vote no without Obamacare defunding.
So far, individual lawmakers, from Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer, D-Md., to Congressional Black Caucus Chairwoman Marcia L. Fudge, D-Ohio, have stated publicly that a CR maintaining the existing $986 billion topline won't get their votes. Sources say that Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., is on the same page.
At a news conference this morning, House Democratic Caucus Chairman Xavier Becerra of California agreed that he "could not live with" that number, which makes indiscriminate cuts across the board.
He and Caucus Vice Chairman Joseph Crowley of New York added, however, that they won't be locked into any specific number, continuing to cast uncertainty as to how Democrats will play their hand.
In the latter scenario, Democrats could gain some leverage. They have been trying for months to convince GOP leaders to allow a sequester replacement bill to come to the floor, namely one drawn up by Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., the ranking member on the House Budget Committee.
“I think we have a lot of leverage and it’s because the Republican leadership is incapable of leading its own caucus,” he said in an interview with CQ Roll Call last month. “Put it this way: They are incapable of leading their caucus to any reasonable compromise."
They also could end up being accused of playing the same games as Republicans in stubbornly refusing to compromise to avoid a shutdown.
Rep. James P. Moran, D-Va., isn't concerned.
"The $988 [billion] level is not an acceptable level of funding and I'm not as concerned about who gets blamed," he said.
Meanwhile, as most House Democrats aim to keep their powder dry, many are wondering whether the White House is doing enough to back them up. President Barack Obama's spokesman Jay Carney has said the administration could accept a "clean" CR without saying what that means or explicitly demanding a sequester replacement in any deal they'd be willing to accept.
In conversations with CQ Roll Call, many Democratic aides said they — and their bosses — wish the White House would do more to give them cover for ultimately voting against a sequester-level CR, or at least giving them a sense of what the administration wants them to do.
One senior progressive Democratic staffer, however, suggested that there's value in the president not making a statement in favor of one level versus another. Should he mean the $988 billion levels, it could leave room for Republicans to negotiate an even lower number. The ambiguity, the staffer implied, could actually be helpful.
A Democratic leadership aide added that from where he stood, the White House has been clear that "clean" means a $988 billion short-term CR.
What would be helpful for the duration of the political battle over the CR between now and the end of the month, however, is if Obama more frequently took to the "bully pulpit" to blast Republicans and bolster Democrats, the aide said.
"The more the better," he said.