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Senate Democrats Eye a Third Fall Showdown

Top Senate Democrats signaled today that they may amend the continuing resolution to last only seven weeks, to Nov. 15 instead of Dec. 15. That would move the fall’s second shutdown showdown to just after the looming dogfight over the debt limit.

The Democratic plan, which has not been finalized, would complicate this week’s stopgap spending imbroglio with a secondary issue that is important for many lawmakers but has nothing to do with the matter consuming the public’s attention. Conservative Republicans continue to demand that Obamacare be denied any funding in the new fiscal year as a condition for keeping the government open.

With the first test votes set for Wednesday — and top Republican leaders abandoning the quixotic filibuster effort orchestrated by Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas —Democrats are sure that by the end of the weekend, they will be able to remove the defunding language from the bill the House passed last week.

That timetable would leave Speaker John A. Boehner less than 48 hours to make his decision: Either go for a bipartisan majority that clears the straightforward spending extension in time, or else guarantee the interruption of some government services on Oct. 1 by allowing Republicans to send the bill back to the Senate with reattached anti-health-care-law language.

The Democrats’ absolute confidence in an outcome to their liking has emboldened them to consider changing another provision, also assumed to their advantage: If spending is extended only until Nov. 15 at the annualized rate of $988 billion (the amount dictated by the sequester), they believe they can pressure House Republicans into negotiating a comprehensive appropriations package during the intervening month and a half.

Senate Appropriations Chairwoman Barbara A. Mikulski is presenting the plan to a caucus of fellow Democrats this afternoon. She hopes such an omnibus bill might push the overall discretionary spending level up by at least a few billion dollars to accommodate priorities that have bipartisan support. At a minimum, she has two other goals in mind: raising or lowering amounts for agencies and programs in ways the across-the-board nature of a sequester CR won’t permit; and restoring some measure of relevance and functionality to an appropriations process that has almost completely broken down in recent years.

The expiration for the CR in the House measure is Dec. 15. The date, two Sundays before Christmas, was chosen as a practical logistical deadline to compel Congress to decide how to handle spending for the rest of fiscal 2014, then go home for the holidays. It was also chosen to put some distance between the fight over the borrowing limit, which the Treasury Department now estimates will have to be raised above $16.7 trillion before Nov. 8.

Appropriators and other skeptics of the House timetable believe it will prompt Congress to do little more than extend existing levels into the new year, if not through next September (just before the midterm elections). These lawmakers predict that a willingness to put together a line-by-line discretionary spending package will be most intense in the days right after the debt ceiling impasse is resolved. It might also help focus lawmaker attention on the dangers of threatening a government default.

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