As the government draws closer to a possible shutdown, party leaders are digging their heels into the ground by refusing to negotiate on spending cuts for a short-term spending bill, but it may be moderate Senate Democrats that end up saving the day.
The House will pass a long-term continuing resolution with about $61 billion in cuts this week, but it will require more time to negotiate the bill with the Democrat-majority Senate than the two weeks left before March 4, when the last resolution expires and the government can no longer spend money. Congress will probably pass a shorter spending resolution — say, one that lasts for two weeks or one month — to buy more time for negotiation between the chambers.
But in the House, Republican Speaker John Boehner says he will refuse any extension of government spending — regardless of the length — unless it includes cuts to the budget. In the Senate, Democratic Majority Leader Harry Reid says he won’t consider spending cuts in a short-term extension.
Luckily for the rest of the country, those two don’t rule the entire government on their own.
Instead, here’s how the battle over a two-week funding extension could play out: Boehner and the Republicans draft a bill to fund the government for two weeks that only cuts a few billion off the top. It includes just enough in spending decreases to appease the party’s conservative freshman class and not too many to scare off Senate Democrats eager to show their constituents back home that they are willing to cut spending. The House passes the bill onto the Senate, which is forced to make a decision as to whether it will swallow a few cuts or face a shutdown.
At that moment, it would come down to the moderate Democrats, many whom could face tough reelection contests in 2012.
Unless Democrats decide to filibuster, Republicans would only need to convince four of them to vote for the bill with spending cuts.
With just two weeks before the deadline, some of those Democrats aren’t standing as firm against the cuts as their leaders.
“I’m interested in seeing spending cuts. They’d have to be rational,” said Democratic Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska when asked if he would support a short-term CR with some spending cuts. “I’ll take a close look at anything that is offered and make up my decision based on what in fact is there.”
On the game of chicken playing out between Reid and Boehner, Nelson said merely: “Looks like it will be a clash of the Titans.”
Democratic Montana Sen. Jon Tester, already facing challengers for 2012, could also go either way.
“I’ll have to see what they are,” he said of the short-term proposal for cuts. “It’s give and take, we’ll see.”
West Virginia Democrat Sen. Joseph Manchin, at times trapped between his caucus and the conservative views he campaigned on, said he would have to be convinced of passing another spending bill without cuts.
“I’d have to hear their explanation on that,” he said of Democratic leadership’s effort to pass a CR with no cuts. “This is serious. I think you’re going to see some real responsibility taking here, but I hope the priorities are set first.”
That leaves Sen. Claire McCaskill, whose rhetoric on spending lately has been strong enough to trick a disorganized Tea Party organizer into inviting her to speak at a rally. The Missouri Democrat has been working hard to distance herself from leadership, and this could be a prime opportunity to flex some muscle. She has co-sponsored a bill with Alabama Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions to cap spending over the next ten years.
With just those four Democrats on board, Republicans could get their cuts in the short-term CR.
But that’s just the easy part. They’ll have to go through all of that just to get some extra time to negotiate with the Senate over the $61 billion in cuts they want to get over the next fiscal year.
That’s when the real battle begins.