Confident Democrats want separate showdowns on shutdown and debt limit

Senate Democrats want to have separate fights with the House GOP over a potential government shutdown and raising the nation’s debt limit, confident they will win showdowns on both issues. [WATCH VIDEO]

Some House Republicans want to bundle the question of setting federal funding levels and raising the debt limit into one vote but a senior Senate Democrat has rejected that possibility.

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Senate Democratic Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said repeatedly raising the debt limit in small increments wreaks havoc on government operations.

“The longer you extend the debt limit, the more thoughtless it is,” he said.

Durbin predicted Congress would tackle the debt limit question in mid October instead of pushing the debate until shortly before Christmas.

“October 15, mark your calendar,” he said. “I’m told that come October 15 we better start getting serious about it.”

Durbin said he wants extend the nation’s borrowing limit for as long as possible in one increment. He cited a year as a reasonable extension.

“We’re not going to be in the situation where you’re lurching from crisis to crisis and putting the full faith and credit [of the government] at the hands of a Republican caucus that can’t get it’s act together,” said a senior Senate Democratic aide. “Doing a longer term clean debt-limit extension will prevent that from happening.”

Some House Republicans want to maximize their leverage by bundling the debt limit and stopgap measure funding government. They could accomplish this by extending government funding until mid-December and bumping up the debt limit just enough to delay a medium-term solution until year’s end.

Democrats, however, want to force the GOP to debate these issues successively.

“We’re not negotiating on the debt ceiling. We think we have the high ground in both of those fights,” said a senior Senate Democratic aide.

The Senate Democratic strategy over the next several weeks will be to stand pat and refuse to make any significant concessions in exchange for funding the government or raising the debt ceiling.

“If push comes to shove on debt ceiling, I’m virtually certain they’ll blink,” said Sen. Charles Schumer (N.Y.), the third-ranking member of the Senate Democratic leadership. “They know they shouldn’t be playing havoc with the markets.”

Schumer said Republicans are on stronger political ground if there’s a government shutdown, but warned “even on that one, they’re on weak ground because the public sort of is finally smelling that these guys are for obstructing.”

A CNN poll released Wednesday showed that 51 percent of the public would blame Republicans for a government shutdown, an increase from the 40 percent who would have pointed the finger at the GOP earlier this year. Only a third of respondents said they would blame President Obama.

The survey also showed that the 2010 Affordable Care Act has become steadily more unpopular.

Democrats acknowledge political problems associated with Obama’s signature domestic accomplishment. They say, however, the public backlash hasn’t been strong enough to give cover to Republicans if a congressional fight over the law shuts down the government.

“Polling shows that Republicans will be blamed for a shutdown,” said a senior Democratic aide. “There may be some problems with the overall popularity of the healthcare law but very few people would say shut down the government or risk default to defund it.”

The Senate Republican leadership agrees with this assessment.

“I think that’s accurate,” said a senior Senate GOP aide. “Republicans acknowledge that."

The aide predicted that the GOP conferences in the Senate and House would begin to splinter as public pressure grew on Congress to resume government funding.

“At some point there some Republicans are going to crack and vote to reopen the federal government,” the aide said.

Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) said this is what happened the last time Congress shuttered the government in the mid 1990s.

“It was actually 1996 when we had the government shutdown. Everybody was all for it until they were not,” Coburn recalled on the Senate floor.

Coburn, who served in the House at the time, said he withstood building pressure to reopen the government but many of his colleagues cracked. He predicted the GOP would wither if a similar scenario evolved this fall.

“The very people who say they will do things today, when it gets tough, do not do it,” he said.