Dems set budget trap for GOP

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Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellSenators near deal on sexual harassment policy change Blankenship third-party bid worries Senate GOP Overnight Finance: Trump signs repeal of auto-loan policy | Justices uphold contracts that bar employee class-action suits | US, China trade war 'on hold' MORE (R-Ky.) on Tuesday rejected demands by Democratic Senate leaders to hold a budget summit this month.

McConnell’s dismissal creates a fiscal standoff in the Senate months earlier than expected over whether spending limits, known as the sequester, should be lifted.

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Failure to resolve the impasse could result in a government shutdown this fall.

Democratic leaders are bringing up the issue now to put pressure on McConnell to agree to raise defense and nondefense spending levels in tandem. They hope to get a head start on the blame game both sides expect at the end of September when government funding is due to expire.

Some Republicans have signaled support for lifting the sequester, but such a deal would provoke a fight with grassroots conservatives that McConnell would like to avoid. A deal to lift the ceilings would bust budget caps set by the 2011 Budget Control Act, which McConnell often cites as a major Republican accomplishment.

The GOP leader also believes he can hurt centrist Democrats if they are forced to cast votes against defense spending at a time when a growing number of voters are worried about the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and national security.

Democrats have warned that they will block the Senate from taking up the annual defense spending bill unless the GOP agrees to lift the sequester on both defense and nondefense spending.

Senate Democratic Whip Dick DurbinRichard (Dick) Joseph DurbinThis week: House GOP regroups after farm bill failure Overnight Health Care — Sponsored by PCMA — Trump hits federally funded clinics with new abortion restrictions Dem lawmaker spars with own party over prison reform MORE (Ill.) on Tuesday floated the possibility of a budget summit, which he said could avoid the impasse over the defense bill.

“It should be congressional leaders of both parties, it should be the White House,” Senate Democratic Leader Harry ReidHarry Mason ReidMcConnell not yet ready to change rules for Trump nominees The Hill's Morning Report — Sponsored by CVS Health — Trump’s love-hate relationship with the Senate Trump to press GOP on changing Senate rules MORE (Nev.) said Tuesday in echoing the call for the summit.

In dismissing the idea, McConnell said the Senate should stick to regular order and vote on the defense appropriations bill this month as scheduled.

He argued a budget summit is not necessary because Senate and House Republican leaders have already agreed to defense spending levels as part of their budget, which was approved by the House and Senate earlier this year.

“We set a spending level. We did it in the budget. When we finish the National Defense Authorization Act, we’ll go to the defense appropriations bill,” McConnell said. “We’re going to move forward and see what our friends on the other side want to do.

“There’s been a lot of big talk about stopping bills. We’ll see whether they really want to do that,” he added.

When asked if it would make sense to hold a budget summit before debating any of the appropriations bills, McConnell said, “No, of course not.”

A spokesman for Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) endorsed McConnell’s stance.

“The Speaker agrees with Leader McConnell. Why are Democrats afraid of regular order? Using funding for our troops as a bargaining chip to extract more spending for bureaucracies like the IRS and the EPA is unconscionable,” said Kevin Smith, Boehner’s aide. 

A big part of the fight over spending, which is triggering skirmishes in the House and the Senate and has led to a series of veto threats from the Obama administration, is a war-funding account used to pay for the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

Republicans increased the war budget to give the Pentagon the ability to spend over the sequester ceiling.

The White House and congressional Democrats have criticized the use of the war account, calling it a “gimmick” that plays havoc with long-term planning.

Democrats say they will not allow any appropriations bills to pass unless funding for nondefense domestic programs is raised as well as defense spending.

 “You wait until the end, you’re going to get a [continuing resolution,] which everyone agrees is a really poor form of budgeting, hurts the military and hurts families, doesn’t allow us to do what we need to do,” Sen. Charles Schumer (N.Y.), the third-ranking member of the Senate Democratic leadership, said in explaining why Senate Democrats are drawing a line now.

Republicans are betting centrist Democrats may not want to stand with their own leadership. Voting against the popular defense spending bill could come back to haunt them in a future election.

“House and Senate Democrats are actively plotting to stop a defense bill that would fund operations against our enemies, military training, body armor, and a pay raise for our troops. And if they don’t get their way, they’re willing to shut down the federal government,” said Smith, Boehner’s spokesman. “That’s a dangerous game that puts lives on the line and the protection of our country at risk.”

Republicans would need six Democrats to cross party lines and vote to move to the defense bill. Sixty votes are necessary in the Senate to overcome procedural hurdles.

Winning the six Democratic votes could be a tall order for McConnell.

Two centrists, Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.), said Tuesday they are undecided.

Manchin called the $38 billion in extra war funds a “gimmick” but added that he’s still “looking” at how to vote.

Heitkamp said her vote would depend on how the debate on the defense authorization measure, which is now pending on the Senate floor, “plays out.”

Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), another centrist, said he would back the Democratic leadership’s call to filibuster the defense bill.

Jordain Carney contributed.