Updated: 6:33 p.m.
Senate Democrats are likely to try to pass a short-term spending bill of their own if Majority Leader Harry Reid, Speaker John Boehner and President Barack Obama fail to reach a breakthrough at a White House meeting Thursday night.
Senate Budget Chairman Kent Conrad said Democrats would offer a short-term spending bill if talks break down, the North Dakota Democrat said after a caucus meeting Thursday afternoon. The bill would include funding for troops for the remainder of the fiscal year, but it would not include policy riders sought by House Republicans.
“There will certainly be an attempt to propose an alternative, including the funding of troops,” Conrad said, without specifying the bill’s length.
That would give Democrats the opportunity to pin the blame for a government shutdown on Republicans if they object, as appears likely, to a “clean” spending bill that does not include any policy riders. The House passed a weeklong stopgap spending bill Thursday afternoon that includes the longer-term troop funding and an abortion policy rider opposed by Senate Democrats. A longer-term spending bill passed by the House in February includes dozens of policy riders, such as prohibitions on funding for Planned Parenthood and EPA regulation of greenhouse gases.
Democratic Conference Vice Chairman Charles Schumer also told reporters that several attempts to pass a short-term bill via unanimous consent would be likely if no deal is reached Thursday night.
But the New York Democrat said those efforts appear doomed to fail for the same reason that the larger talks have stalled — policy riders.
“Unless they back off those riders, it’s going to be impossible pretty much to avoid a shutdown,” Schumer said. “We’ve been against them from the beginning, and we’re not changing.”
Schumer said Democrats would decide what to do after Reid, Boehner and Obama meet at 7 p.m. at the White House. The trio also met Thursday afternoon.
Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin also said Democrats are considering their options on a short-term bill.
The Illinois Democrat said Boehner came to Thursday afternoon’s White House meeting with a longer list of riders that he wanted included.
“I don’t know what pressure he’s under in his caucus or what’s leading him to this, but he has to — at some point — sit down and negotiate in good faith,” Durbin said.
The Majority Whip added that Reid would renew his offer to hold a separate floor vote on the Planned Parenthood amendment sought by Boehner. Schumer said Democrats are willing to have votes on every one of the major riders proposed by House Republicans, but not as part of a spending bill.
“You put the riders on, it’s the straw that breaks the camel’s back, and you don’t get a budget,” he added.
The short-term bill passed by the House includes an abortion rider affecting the District of Columbia that is anathema to many Senate Democrats. But the inclusion of funding for the Defense Department puts Democratic Senators in a tough spot politically, particularly with the nation in the middle of overseas military operations.
Several Democratic Senators, including Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin (Mich.), have called for passing a bill providing Defense Department funding for the remainder of the fiscal year, regardless of what happens with the larger negotiations.
Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) said Congress should pass a short-term bill to fund the Pentagon at minimum.
“That’s a very logical thing that we should do,” said Lieberman, who caucuses with the Democrats. “Everybody agrees that we should do it, at least for a week.”
Lieberman said Reid was not optimistic in Thursday’s caucus meeting that a shutdown could be avoided, primarily because Republicans don’t appear to be willing to budge on the EPA and Planned Parenthood riders.
“Yesterday he was optimistic, today he’s pessimistic,” Lieberman said of Reid.
Conrad said Republicans were still pushing to include many other riders, including provisions on mountaintop mining, Wall Street reform and D.C. school vouchers.
Kathleen Hunter contributed to this report.