Is the Senate Cooking Up a Way to Dodge Default?

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We don’t want to watch but we just can’t look away: the partial shutdown of the U.S. government has stumbled through its first week, and Uncle Sam is just nine days away from cracking his head against the debt ceiling.

Most of the conversation surrounding the impasse is negative, but there is news this week that modest progress has been made toward untangling the political Gordian knot that has locked Democrats and Republicans together in an awkward fiscal death dance. Senate Democrats — who control the upper house — have reportedly begun drafting legislation that would raise the debt ceiling with no strings attached. A vote on the measure could come as early as Friday, but Senate Republicans could use procedural roadblocks to delay movement until Tuesday.

The measure would need 60 votes to pass (the Senate is split between 52 Democrats, 2 Independents, and 46 Republicans), which means it will likely include deep spending cuts to sate Republicans, but no cuts to the Affordable Care Act (ACA, also known as Obamacare), a necessary condition for Democratic support. President Barack Obama has signaled that he would be willing to accept a stopgap funding measure in order to avoid a default.

In aggregate, the Republican Party has adopted (or found itself in) a bitter fight with President Obama and congressional Democrats over the ACA. However, despite having a common enemy in the President’s healthcare law, the overall Republican strategy appears fractious, and the party is increasingly divided over strategy.

One faction, an ultra-conservative group ostensibly led by Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas), has orchestrated the war on the ACA and used the budget as leverage. The other, represented by Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-Ohio), looks like it was hijacked by the first, having initially intended to use the debt ceiling debate as vehicle to push long-sought spending cuts. Keep in mind that most funding measures that Democrats are willing to agree to have included deep spending cuts.

The House of Representatives — currently controlled 232-200 by Republicans — claims the power of the purse and is using this power as leverage to force changes to the ACA. This strategy is what has Democrats so firmly entrenched on their side of the aisle, as many believe that what the GOP is doing is akin to holding the U.S. economy hostage: it is unprecedented that policymakers tie government funding to unrelated legislation, such as the ACA. Democrats and the president have reiterated time and again that they are unwilling to negotiate as long as this hostage situation exists.

The House, for its part, has passed several CRs to the Senate, but each attempted to defund, delay, or otherwise undermine the ACA, so each has been shot down by the Democrat-controlled Senate. The House has also sent a number of bills through that would reopen specific parts of the government, but the Senate has also blocked these measures. Senate Democrats believe that they would be setting precedence for future fiscal hostage taking if they allow anything but a full funding measure to pass.

A number of Republican lawmakers in the House of Representatives are rallying behind the idea of passing a clean continuing resolution, a proposition championed by congressional Democrats and President Barack Obama as the only reasonable way to end the standoff.

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