September 20, 2013
Boehner
House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) (Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images)

The way is now seemingly clear to avoid a government shutdown: The House passed a “clean” Continuing Resolution that it paired with defunding the Affordable Care Act; the Senate will presumably delete the Obamacare provision and send the clean CR back to the House; and the House will then pass it with mostly Democratic votes, with any sighs of relief drown out by Tea Party cries of “sell out!”

But, wait — what’s a “clean” CR, anyway? Typically, what that means is that both parties agree to keep the status quo in place for now. “Clean” means no policy changes. And so this clean CR, designed to keep the government operating for the first 10 weeks or so of the fiscal year, locks in sequestration for that long. Liberals noticing that have concluded that conservatives, the Obamacare sideshow aside, have already won, that they might win even more, and that perhaps Barack Obama is pretty much okay with sequestration, anyway.

So what’s going on?

The question is whether David Dayen is correct when he writes that “pushing sequestration into FY 2014 will probably cement it for the rest of the year.” And indeed, a while back, I was asking why Democrats weren’t fighting on CR spending levels. At that point, Greg Sargent did some reporting that I remembered today when these posts (and even more Twitter comments) were showing up. Here’s Greg’s reporting:

[E]ven if Dems were to stage a battle around spending levels, no matter what the outcome, it would be temporary. Remember, once this CR runs out there will be another battle over spending later in the year, and Dems want a long term replacement for the sequester. So even if Dems got the higher spending levels this time — which likely wouldn’t happen — we’d be in the same place as now in a few months.

Dems believe that even if Republican leaders somehow muddle their way through by passing something funding the government at current levels, they’ll be in an even weaker position when the debt limit fight starts up in earnest, because conservatives will have already swallowed a defeat and will be in an even less compromising mood later. And so, at that point, Boehner will be in even greater need of Dem help to avoid disaster — setting up the possibility of a bigger deal that includes a debt limit hike (unofficially; the official position is there’s no negotiating over it) and a longer term replacement (say, one year) for the sequester that includes some new revenues.

Is that a better strategy than fighting now even if it risks a government shutdown (or, for that matter, fighting back in the spring at the risk of a government shutdown)?

I’m pretty skeptical. I certainly don’t think Republicans are ever going to replace sequestration with anything involving higher revenues. In my view, the best ground for Democrats to occupy in this fight is just to fight for higher spending — that is, after all, what most Democrats actually want. But at any rate, I don’t really see any advantages in waiting another 10 weeks to have that fight. Indeed, I still don’t see why they shouldn’t have forced the confrontation back in the spring.

However, it does appear that Democrats do have a plan to fight for higher spending on Democratic priorities. Or at least the intention of doing so. And who knows? They could be right that Republicans will be more willing to deal in December than they have been in September, although again I don’t really see why.

Still, it’s worth keeping that plan in mind when thinking about what’s happening now. And to remember that as messy as it’s been so far (and yes, it could still get messier), it could still be just a warm-up for a real fight in December.