Debt ceiling vote will test Dems' unity

Senate Democratic unity will face a test Saturday when Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) moves forward with a plan to pass a 14-month debt-ceiling extension.

The unity of the 54-member caucus has been Reid’s biggest asset in his showdown with House Republicans. Senate Democrats have voted together to reject various House proposals to link legislation unraveling ObamaCare to a government funding stopgap.

If Reid keeps his rank-and-file members together, it would strengthen Democrats’ leverage in negotiations to avoid a federal default later this month.

But the vote presents a political risk to red state Democrats who are undecided over whether to support a clean extension raising the nation’s debt ceiling by an estimated $1.1 trillion.

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Reid kept his team together in rejecting the House-passed stopgaps but only at some political cost.

Rep. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) released a television ad last weekend against Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.), perhaps the Senate’s most vulnerable incumbent, slamming him for voting against a House bill that would have prevented congressional lawmakers and staff from receiving employer contributions through the healthcare exchanges.

“Mark Pryor cast the deciding vote to make you live under ObamaCare but Pryor votes himself and everyone else in Congress special subsidies,” the ad’s narrator claimed.

Democrats note, however, that Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) initially negotiated to preserve healthcare benefits for congressional staff.

Democrats also argue red state incumbents will face little political threat because the vote is on an arcane procedural motion.

“It’s just to debate the debt limit. No way that puts them in political peril,” said a Democratic aide.

The vote also poses some risk to Reid’s negotiating position because if any centrist Democrats defect, it would undercut his stance that it is not appropriate to negotiate over the debt limit.

Sens. Joe Donnelly (D-Ind.) and Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.) have declined to state whether they will vote.

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) says it would make sense to link a debt-limit increase to deficit-reduction talks but has not ruled anything out. Last month, Manchin voted against a House-passed stopgap tied to a one-year delay of the individual mandate, despite earlier expressing support for such a delay.

“I’m looking for a bigger deal, I’m not looking for kicking the can” down the road, he said. “I’ve always supported the Bowles-Simpson approach, an all-inclusive deal, where you have spending, you’re looking at the spending, looking at revenue and you’re looking at basically reform.”

Pryor says he could support a clean debt-limit increase but has also voiced willingness to consider spending reforms in conjunction with expanded borrowing authority.

Sens. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) and Mark Begich (D-Alaska), who also face tough races next year, are expected to vote yes.  

“I don’t believe the economy or the federal government should be held hostage by a minority of Republicans who can’t get their way,” said Landrieu.

“The key is pay the bills, open the government, let’s have a conversation,” said Begich, who argued that 70 percent of recent deficit-reduction has come from spending cuts.

He also noted that Democrats accepted the funding levels the House GOP set in the stopgap.

Sen. Charles Schumer (N.Y.), the third-ranking member of the Democratic leadership, predicts that “about every Democrat” will vote for the 14-month debt-limit bill, leaving a little wiggle room for defectors.

The Senate will vote at noon and the measure is expected to fail along party lines.  Reid needs 60 votes to end debate on the motion to proceed to it.

Senate Republicans are looking past the vote to negotiations with Senate Democrats over a potential deal to open the government through the end of fiscal year 2014 and raise the debt limit.

They have demanded a repeal of ObamaCare’s medical device tax and a process to verify the incomes of people applying for subsidies through the healthcare exchanges. In return, they are willing to extend the nation’s borrowing authority for several months.

Senate Republicans have been negotiating with the two Democratic senators from Virginia, Tim Kaine and Mark Warner, whose state has been hit especially hard by the shutdown, according to a source familiar with the talks.

If the House passes a short-term debt-limit increase that fails to reopen the government, the Senate could amend it with a bipartisan agreement to expand borrowing authority and fund federal agencies, sending it back to the lower chamber by the middle of next week.