September 27, 2013

Two key votes in the Senate today put us back where we always knew we would be after Ted Cruz’s noisy stunt faded away: House Republicans are still stuck deciding between stiff-arming the Tea Party and taking the blame for a government shutdown.

First, the Senate voted by 79-19 to end debate on the House bill defunding Obamacare, defying Senate conservatives. Ted Cruz: We are the 19 percent! And second, the Senate voted on party lines, 54-44, on final passage of the measure after stripping it of the defunding, sending it back to the House.

Perhaps the most interesting wrinkle in today’s voting — at least in terms of what it will mean for the big picture — is that Senate Dems amended the bill to move up the expiration date of the government funding under the “continuing resolution” from December 15th to November 15th. That means Dems are pushing for the next confrontation over funding the government to start a month earlier.

That’s potentially good news for liberals, because it means Dems are laying the groundwork to at least try to stage a real fight over replacing the sequester at higher spending levels for the next year or more. My understanding is Dems believe forcing another government funding fight sooner — rather than having one closer to the end of the year — will give appropriators more time before the end of the year to draw up a long term replacement for the sequester next year, and give Dems more time to fight for it. And, of course, it means that we’re only funding the government at sequester levels through November 15th, rather than a month longer than that.

All of this gets to a point about this whole thing that keeps getting lost, which is that if we continue to fund the government temporarily at sequester levels — as Dems would likely agree to, if House Republicans were to pass something doing it – it would be a victory for Republicans. But conservatives have decided that anything short of defunding Obamacare is abject surrender, so accepting sequester level spending as a victory is off the table. Indeed, Robert Costa reports that Cruz is privately urging House conservatives to oppose House Speaker John Boehner if he does anything short of maintain a total war posture against Obamacare.

Dems believe that Boehner’s need to placate conservatives angry over the failure of the shutdown strategy by staging an even bigger fight around the debt limit will put him in  a weaker position at the moment when the stakes of failure — default and economic havoc are far greater. How all of this will play out is unclear, to put it mildly. But the basic idea is that it’s better to try to force Republicans to accept a long term replacement for the sequester — one at higher spending levels more in keeping with Dem priorities — sooner rather than later, just as they are grappling with deep divisions in their conference that may only be made worse by a brutal debt limit fight.

Greg Sargent writes The Plum Line blog, a reported opinion blog with a liberal slant -- what you might call “opinionated reporting” from the left.