The shutdown endgame: Democrats turn the tables on the GOP

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Reid's reported proposal would punt the next debt ceiling showdown to the eve of the 2014 midterm elections.
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Reid's reported proposal would punt the next debt ceiling showdown to the eve of the 2014 midterm elections.

With the deadline to raise the nation's debt ceiling three days away, Democrats are giving House Republicans a taste of their own medicine.

Whereas Republicans had until now been the ones making demands in exchange for funding the government and averting a debt default, Democrats, seeing their opponents on the ropes, are now probing to see if they can get something for themselves.

In terms of specifics, the debate centers on how long the automatic spending cuts mandated by the sequester should last, and how far into the future the debt ceiling should be raised. Republicans want the cuts to last as long as possible with a short-term hike in the debt ceiling, while Democrats essentially want the opposite.

Yet the underlying issue is how much of a legislative price Democrats can, or should, try to extract now that Republicans have essentially conceded defeat in the broader shutdown fight.

With her party's poll number sliding to historical lows, Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) on Friday offered a compromise: A two-year delay of a tax on medical devices, a six-month funding bill at sequestration levels, and a two-month debt limit increase. Democrats balked, and Collins softened the proposal to extend sequestration-level funding only to January 15. Democrats shot that down on sight as well, instead pushing for a longer punt on the debt ceiling and an earlier chance to negotiate spending.

Details of the latest offer Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) presented to Republicans Monday, according Politico:

Under Reid's proposal, the debt ceiling would be extended for six to nine months, and the government would be funded at $986 billion until some point in December. Doing so would punt the fight over whether to lock in 2014 sequestration levels at $967 billion until December. And by extending the debt ceiling until the middle of next year, it would put the issue in the center of the heated 2014 midterm elections. [Politico]

The plan could also reportedly include a delay of the medical device tax in exchange for unspecified GOP concessions, possibly the closure of tax loopholes. And in setting the next debt ceiling fight smack in the middle of the 2014 midterm elections, Democrats think they would have the high ground to force Republicans, wary of how poorly this round of high-stakes bargaining went for them, to cave again then, too.

"If they want to recommit political suicide a few months before an election, that’s going to be their choice," a Democratic aide told The Washington Post's Greg Sargent. "We’re going to make sure that, if this happens, it has real consequences for them.”

Republicans, unsurprisingly, aren't too pleased with the role reversal.

"What am I getting?" Collins told The New York Times. "I'm serious. I've bent over backward."

But Democrats think they have all the leverage in the fight.

An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll last week showed Americans blaming the GOP for the shutdown by a 22-point margin. Additional polling has shown the GOP's odds of retaking the Senate in 2014 — once a reasonably likely outcome — fading.

With Reid's latest offer, Democrats said they felt they were "getting closer" to a deal.

It's worth remembering that Democrats aren't exactly demanding a king's ransom — or really any ransom at all, when you consider that the GOP's stated position is also to raise the debt ceiling, open the government, and continue spending at sequestration levels. But creating an ostensible gulf between Democrats and Republicans could make it seem as if the two sides have reached common ground in any final deal, giving GOP leaders a "victory" they can take back to their recalcitrant right wing.

"The perception of such a ransom would allow a deal to do the only things on which there is real common ground in both chambers of Congress and the White House," says Jonathan Chait at New York. "Stop a shutdown that's threatening the Republican brand and avoid a crisis to the world economy."

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