Don't let the cable news shutdown countdown clocks fool you: Monday's Congressional fight over how to keep the government operational isn't really about avoiding a shutdown, it's about the two parties positioning themselves for a fight over the more consequential debt limit.
Democrats for the first time in years are digging in as a major deadline nears, sending a signal to Republicans that they won't dismantle the health care law in order to appease demands they believe are fueled by the fringe of the opposing party and are unreasonable in relation to the fight at hand. And at this point, Democrats have no choice but to stand strong on a clean continuing resolution. Because if they were to relent now, they would prove that President Barack Obama's words — that he won't negotiate around the full faith and credit of the United States — are just lip service and that the GOP again can exact demands in October with a potential government default on the line.
"All the more reason," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said when asked by Roll Call if Democrats were standing firm now in order to boost their leverage for a debt ceiling debate. "You know, with a bully you cannot let them slap you around, because they slap around today, it's they slap you five or six times. Tomorrow it will be seven or eight times. We are not going to be bullied. We have done everything we can and done it reasonably. We have a debt ceiling coming that — this is horrible what they're doing now, but as the Business Roundtable said, the chambers of commerce says, the debt ceiling is cataclysmic. They are playing with fire. And the American people know who's creating the fire."
A similar situation to what's happening now played out in April 2011, when Democrats did not appear willing to risk a government shutdown, signed a six-month continuing resolution that included $38 billion in cuts and made themselves vulnerable to being pinned down in the debt limit debate that summer. In the end, Democrats ended up agreeing to $2.2 trillion in discretionary spending cuts as part of the Budget Control Act in order to keep the government from defaulting on its debt.
Democrats cannot repeat their performance from two years ago, largely because there are not really any more politically viable discretionary domestic cuts to be made. Quite the contrary, Democrats such as Senate Appropriations Chairwoman Barbara A. Mikulski, D-Md., are pushing aggressively to roll back the sequester that mandates the cuts in the first place.
While they would never say so vocally, there are likely some Republicans who quietly hope Democrats stand firm against the conservatives pushing to attach Obamacare provisions to the spending bills, because without Democrats being the enemy in this case, the GOP establishment will have a difficult time turning its attention back to its comfort zone: cutting spending.
Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, has turned this shutdown fight into a binary win-lose scenario for the GOP. Defunding Obamacare is a win. Anything less is a loss. But nearly every Republican in Washington knows that the political reality in defunding a sitting president's signature law is stacked up against them.
Republicans could have won by exacting more cuts, but they can't do that if they're not talking about cuts at all. "I've sort of moved beyond the CR at this point. I want to make sure that nothing that's happening this week, last week and next week will take away from us continuing to focus on the debt ceiling — continuing to focus in the debt ceiling debate on spending," said Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn. "We've made so many games and I'm worried that as people have focused on a shiny object that, you know, there may have been some [turning] away from that. And I want to make sure we continue to try to make gains on reducing spending and dealing with the fiscal issues.
"I think if we can get past the CR — when we get past it, we will get past it at some point — I think the focus is going to turn to spending. At least I hope it does. That's where I want it to go," Corker continued. "I am a little worried, again, with all of the issues that have occurred over the last two weeks, that there have been some discussions about some things that I think would be harmful to us as a nation."
Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., one of the party's top messaging lieutenants put it this way: "We won't be extorted now. We won't be extorted two weeks from now. We won't be extorted in December."
And it's likely Congressional Democrats are framing their argument to the White House the exact same way. After facing deadline after deadline when the administration swooped in at the last minute to cut a deal, undermining any leverage they might have had, Democrats on the Hill finally are banding together. Republicans are accusing Democrats of inviting a government shutdown by refusing anything but a rider-free continuing resolution. And they might just be. Because without the government shutdown, they would be in no position to avert default.