Senate Democrats believe the longer the government remains shut down, the more leverage they will wield in the debt-limit debate later this month.
There is growing sentiment among Democrats that the short-term funding resolution and debt-limit increase should be combined. They claim the issues should be merged to take advantage of Republicans, who are pided and off balance trying to fend off blame for the shutdown.
“This is now all together,” said Senate Democratic Whip Dick Durbin (Ill.) about blending the two issues.
Previously, Democrats were resistant to such an idea. That was at least in part because President Obama is refusing to negotiate on the debt limit. But a Democratic senator told The Hill this week that is no longer a concern, saying the White House can effectively deal with the GOP’s tactics.
Democrats are eager to deal with the debt limit now, when polls show most of the public blames Republicans for the shutdown. They contend it would be difficult for the GOP to make additional demands linked to the debt limit while they’re embroiled in a crisis over a six-weekend spending stopgap.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said Democrats will gain more leverage in the debt-limit fight as the government shutdown drags on.
“They are effectively hurting themselves big time,” she said, arguing that 72 percent of the intelligence community’s civilian workforce will be furloughed because of what she described as Tea Party-fueled obstruction.
Feinstein endorsed merging the spending stopgap and the debt-ceiling increase.
“I’m not averse to doing all of this at one time and getting rid of it,” she said. “This has such a dispiriting, disheartening effect and really fuels difficult emotions. What people want us to do, Democrats and Republicans, is to sit down and solve problems.”
Earlier this year, Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) identified the debt limit as the most promising leverage point to use against Democrats.
Boehner tried to move the fight over ObamaCare to debt-limit legislation, but members of his conference rebelled and insisted on fighting over the stopgap first.
Senate Republicans now see the leverage of that issue slipping away as many government services remain shuttered.
“Obviously the Democrats feel the advantage is with them,” said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), offering a theory of why Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has rejected GOP requests to hold conference negotiations on the stopgap.
“Reid thinks the longer the shutdown lasts, the better it is for him,” said a Republican senator who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss deliberations in the GOP conference.
Conversely, Democratic strategists worry that granting any concession to pass the stopgap will weaken their position ahead of the debt-limit showdown.
“If we give an inch on the CR, they’re going to take a mile on the debt ceiling,” said Sen. Charles Schumer (N.Y.), the third-ranking Senate Democratic leader. “The hard right will say, ‘See, they gave in. Let’s demand more.’ ”
Several GOP senators said the two issues will likely be joined if the shutdown is not resolved by the start of next week.
“Either it’s resolved this week or the debt ceiling gets rolled into it,” said Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.).
The administration says the nation’s borrowing authority needs to be increased by Oct. 17.
The White House appears eager to tackle the two fiscal matters simultaneously, so two big GOP bargaining chips can be dispensed with while Republicans are distracted by internal disagreements over how aggressively to fight the implementation of ObamaCare.
Burr said Obama has been much less involved in resolving the shutdown than then-President Clinton was in 1996.
“The president is totally disengaged,” Burr said. “The president in 1996 was engaged in an hour-by-hour basis.”
Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) said Tuesday it may make sense to fuse the stopgap and debt-ceiling negotiations.
“They are getting close to each other, aren’t they?” McConnell told reporters. “I’d still like to resolve the current issue before we move onto the debt ceiling, but it’s not exactly clear yet when that will be resolved.”
Reid has said he will not convene a bicameral conference to negotiate government spending until House Republicans agree to a clean stopgap.
“The first thing that the House has to do is pass a clean six-week [continuing resolution]. They have that before them,” Reid said Monday evening.
Reid and other Democrats argue that GOP conservatives blocked motions to go to conference with the House over the budget on 18 different occasions.
Peter Schroeder contributed.