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Congressional Dems weigh options for budget hardball

We have a sense of how the budget standoff is supposed to go this week. The Democratic-led Senate will strip the House bill of its "defund Obamacare" provisions
Congressional Dems weigh options for budget hardball
Congressional Dems weigh options for budget hardball

We have a sense of how the budget standoff is supposed to go this week. The Democratic-led Senate will strip the House bill of its "defund Obamacare" provisions, leave the rest of it intact, pass it, and send it back to the lower chamber for an up-or-down vote. If the House passes it, we move on to the next GOP-imposed crisis. If the House rejects it, the government shuts down.

But there's another scenario to consider. We talked a bit late on Friday about an alternative scenario in which Democrats play budget hardball, and help the country at the same time. The idea has some notable allies on Capitol Hill.

Senate Democrats ... say Reid should counter the House Republican government funding bill by not only stripping language defunding ObamaCare, but by increasing funding for the rest of the government.Democrats say Reid can afford to go on offense against Republicans given their division, and polls that show most voters would blame them if the government shuts down."We're going to try to get as high a CR level as we can get," said Sen. Charles Schumer (N.Y.), the third-ranking member of the Democratic caucus, referring to the stop-gap spending measure. "We are not going to be held hostage.... We're going to negotiate to get as a high a level as possible."

With just one week until the shutdown deadline, it's understandable that nearly all of the attention has been focused on Republican efforts to sabotage the Affordable Care Act. Indeed, the GOP's tactics have been indefensible -- they're threatening to shut down the federal government unless Democrats agree to take away health care benefits from millions of Americans. It's just bizarre.

But let's not overlook the other part of this: spending levels. The House Republicans' bill leaves spending levels where they are now -- keeping the damaging sequestration levels intact for no particular reason.

Democrats could, if they wanted to adopt a slightly more aggressive posture, do something about this.

To review the alternative scenario we discussed on Friday, Senate Dems are already going to change the House bill -- by majority rule, they'll scrap the part that defunds the Affordable Care Act. But why stop there? Senate Democratic leaders could, simultaneously, approve higher spending levels, ending some or all of the sequestration policy that's hurting the country for no reason.

Even if Senate Republicans balked, there's not a whole lot they could do about it. And since plenty of GOP senators hate the deliberately harmful sequester anyway, maybe some of them might even be glad.

As we talked about, the House GOP obviously wouldn't be happy, but don't forget, they're not going to like the Senate version anyway since it will fund the Affordable Care Act. So if Republicans are going to be angry no matter what Senate Dems do, shouldn't Democrats pursue a bill they actually like? One that better serves the nation's interests? Especially since the House will be inclined to pass something to avoid a shutdown?

Senate Democratic leaders aren't sold because they're looking for the path of least resistance. Don't rock the boat, don't pick unnecessary fights, don't risk blame if things go awry -- just fix the Obamacare language, prevent a shutdown, and live to see another day.

And while I can appreciate why the play-it-safe approach has appeal, I can't help but wonder if Democrats are failing to take full advantage of this opportunity. Indeed, if a significant number of House Republicans are going to reject the Senate version, and support from House Democrats will be necessary to get this bill across the finish line in time, the Senate could make it a whole lot easier to generate support from House Dems if they aimed a little higher in their ambitions.

There are 200 House Democrats. Faced with the prospect of a government shutdown that the GOP would be blamed for, there aren't 18 House Republicans who would vote for the Senate version that scraps some or all of a sequestration policy that Republicans say they don't like anyway? Of course there are.

GOP officials would howl, but (a) they're already howling; and (b) do Democrats really care? Should they? Were Republicans concerned about how Dems would react when they passed their ridiculous continuing resolution last week?