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How Dems view this fall’s fiscal fights

Several liberal bloggers have raised an interesting question: Are Senate Democrats set to cave in this fall’s fiscal fights?

Here’s the case, as laid out by Jonathan Bernstein, Kevin Drum and Jonathan Cohn. House Republicans want to pass a temporary measure funding the government through December 15 at sequestration levels, give or take. But we don’t know if deeply divided House Republicans can even do that. So leverage lies with Dems. Why should they agree to fund the government at austerity levels? Shouldn’t they hold out for higher funding levels and force the GOP leadership to pass it with a lot of Dem support?

The official position of Senate Dems is they’ve made no decisions and are waiting to see what House Republicans can pass. But aides have said Senate Dems would probably pass a temporary funding measure at current levels — if House Republicans do. And let’s face it: President Obama has not signaled he wants a fight over temporary funding, so there probably won’t be one. Progressive groups are wary of Dems accepting GOP austerity spending levels. So would it be a cave?

Here’s the answer, as supplied by a Senate Democratic aide. The view from the Dem side is that the House GOP is currently imploding amid potentially irreconcilable divisions over how aggressively to confront Obamacare. If House Republicans pass something temporarily funding the government at current levels, i.e. $988 billion over 10 years, and Senate Dems demand more — say, at the rate of their $1.058 trillion budget  — that ultimately won’t help Dems.

Here’s why. If they demand more, there is no chance Boehner can get such a thing through the House He may not even try. Instead, Republicans can shift some blame for the looming government shutdown on to Democrats. The cause of the shutdown will become the dispute between Dems and Republicans, in which Dems are asking for more spending, instead of the cause merely being GOP intransigence and disarray. In that case the ensuing blame game could be far less advantageous to Dems. Indeed Dems might ultimately have to acquiesce to the lower spending levels. Then the story would be that Republicans held the line; Dems caved; and thus was a shutdown averted.

What’s more, even 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. Would Republicans ever agree to new revenues? Maybe not. But remember, if the sequester replacement deal is only one year, the amount of needed revenues would be relatively small and could be accomplished with relatively easy closings on a handful of tax loopholes. And at that point, with default and economic havoc looming, he’d likely be under extreme pressure from the business community and even some Senate Republicans to reach a deal with Dems.

Anyway, that’s the thinking, as best as I understand it.