WASHINGTON -- Democrats’ plan to block every GOP spending bill this summer isn’t a bid for a government shutdown -- it’s a strategy to bring Republicans to the negotiating table before it’s too late, Senate Democratic leaders told The Huffington Post on Tuesday.
They vowed that not only would Democrats not crack, but the public would also blame Republicans if another shutdown occurs because it would be GOP leaders who refused to compromise.
“In terms of shutting down the government, that’s what [Republicans] want to do,” Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), the heir-apparent to Democratic Leader Harry Reid, said in an interview. “We’re saying sit down and negotiate a fair plan. They refuse to do it. Now, who’s saying the right thing here? I think most Americans would side with us.”
The battle stems from the budget blueprint that both houses of Congress passed in the spring with no Democratic votes. It boosts spending for the military by $38 billion more than the military requested, doing so by cutting domestic programs and stashing extra cash in the war spending account known as Overseas Contingency Operations. That war money isn’t subject to the automatic sequestration cuts enacted in the 2011 budget showdown.
For a quick refresher, sequestration was the automatic cut part of that 2011 deal, called the Budget Control Act, that was supposed to be so painful that it would force Congress to negotiate spending compromises. The cuts were set to be half defense and half domestic programs to ensure that all sides wanted to avoid them.
That has not worked out, but in 2013, Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) were able to secure a two-year deal that at least partially alleviated sequestration.
At that time, Democrats were in control of the Senate. Now, the GOP runs the show in both chambers, and is intent on passing spending bills that don't follow that 50-50 defense-domestic principle. President Barack Obama has threatened to veto those bills, which in itself could set up showdowns at the end of the fiscal year in September or in December.
Senate Democratic leaders have decided they will try to rewire that scheme now by hammering the GOP plans and stopping Republicans from passing any appropriations bills.
“The president has said, ‘Stop this. We need a sensible budget level of spending. I’ll veto any bills you send to me with the sequestration levels,’” Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) explained in an interview. “And we’ve said, ‘Alright, we know he’s going to do it, let’s save some time here. Let’s sit down now and start negotiating a budget agreement.’”
But to get there, they believe they have to show Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) that Democrats won’t bend, and that they will filibuster all the spending bills in order to get a better overall plan.
They already blocked the defense spending bill, despite charges from the GOP that Democrats were short-changing the troops and risking national security.
“Democrats -- we’re totally unified,” Schumer said. “[Republicans] felt that charge -- ‘Oh, they’re not funding defense,’ -- would pick up the votes necessary to pass their bill. But every Democrat but one stuck together -- liberals, moderates, conservatives,” Schumer said.
Both Schumer and Durbin expect that even though Democrats are the ones erecting a blockade, the public would understand why, and see Republican leaders as the cause.
“I don’t think the public is going to be pointing fingers of blame at this early stage,” Durbim said. “If the government shuts down, they’re going to want to ask some basic questions. Didn’t you suggest sitting down in June to work this out, and now you waited until October 1, and haven’t sat down yet? What’s wrong here? We think that the more reasonable position is a negotiation now.”
“We are unified because we want to avoid a shutdown, we want to see a fair budget that helps both security and middle-class families, and we think that they don’t have a strategy to avoid the shutdown other then wait until the very end and say do it our way, or shut down the government,” Schumer said. “We’re going to head them off at the pass.”
A McConnell spokesman responded to the charge that the GOP is dragging things out by noting that McConnell is proceeding much more quickly on the dozen appropriations bills that must pass every year than Democrats did in recent years.
“By the end of June, Senate Republicans will have reported nine appropriations bills from committee,” Don Stewart said in an email. “In 2014, Democrats only reported seven by that same point. In 2013, Democrats only reported four by that same point. Since 2012, Democrats have brought only one appropriations bill to the floor through the regular order. They’re now intent on stopping us from bringing any appropriations under the regular order.”
Of course, with Democrats in the minority, the only point in the regular order where they can insist on including their priorities or those of the president is when the Senate must muster 60 votes to advance bills.
That's what Democrats are doing. Schumer can't understand why McConnell is willing to go there, since the public historically winds up agreeing more with Democrats in these spending spats.
“It’s amazing to me that they are still doing it because each time they do it, it's a flop. We hold our ground. They either shut down the government or risk it. And then at the very end, with a lot of damage and detritus, they have to back off,” Schumer said. “The Republicans have been the obstructionists for a long time. The public knows they’re obstructing. It’s pretty obvious when we say sit down and negotiate, and they say no, who’s leading to another obstruction.”
Durbin suggested it would be a better use of everyone’s time if Republicans try now to include some Democratic priorities around things like education and infrastructure spending, rather than continuing to move one-sized, veto-destined bills.
“Why wait? Why not seize the moment now? It isn’t like we’re overworked here,” said Durbin. “Start the negotiations. They’ll take a while.”
Republicans do seemed concerned about the blame issue. House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy went out of his way Wednesday to accuse Democrats of spoiling for a shutdown.
"Unfortunately, I hear many times -- and I read within the paper -- that it’s kind of become the summer of dysfunction on the other side of the aisle. Not only is there an internal civil war, but now they talk about wanting to shut the government down."
"And it's not just in the house," he added. Democrats "may even be with the administration together."
Michael McAuliff covers Congress and politics for The Huffington Post. Talk to him on Facebook.