Instead, they have attacked Republicans as reckless, pressuring them to decide whether to keep the government open with no strings attached — as Democrats favor — or shut it down.
The key to the Democratic strategy is a belief that a showdown is likely to play out similarly to the government shutdowns of 1995 and 1996, which turned public opinion sharply against the Republican majority.
“It wouldn’t be the worst thing for Democrats if [Republicans] tried to shut the government down,” Hillary Rodham Clinton, the former secretary of state and a potential 2016 presidential candidate, said in New York on Tuesday.
“We’ve seen that movie before, and it didn’t work out so well for those so-called obstructionists,” she added.
As a result, many Democrats welcomed Tuesday’s filibuster-style floor speech by conservative Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), who pledged to talk for as long as he could in an attempt to slow Democratic plans to advance a bill that would keep the government open while also funding President Obama’s signature health-care law. House Republicans voted to strip funding from Obamacare last week in exchange for keeping the government running.
The Cruz demonstration — which was opposed by many leading Senate Republicans and was set to end by Wednesday morning — plays into a Democratic strategy to try to ensure that the GOP is blamed for a shutdown if it occurs.
Congress must act by Monday night to avoid most agencies closing on Tuesday. The showdown is likely to serve as a launching point for a similarly contentious debate next month over raising the federal debt ceiling.
Looking ahead to the challenging midterm elections, Democrats see a potential political boon in the ongoing fights. Democratic candidates in some competitive races have begun to attack incumbent Republicans over the GOP effort to defund Obamacare, airing advertisements and targeting their offices with constituent calls.
“We’re going to make the case that 2014 is going to be a referendum between extremist Republicans and crisis and leaders with reasonable solutions,” said Rep. Steve Israel (D-N.Y.), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. “It does create a narrow path for us.”
But Republican strategists say Democrats are overstating the potential benefits of the showdown for their side. They say that Democrats have their own problems — particularly support for Obamacare in the face of strong public opposition. Republicans have launched their own waves of television and Web ads linking Democrats in competitive districts to the health-care law.