That's what is actually up for grabs: how much the government will spend when the new fiscal year begins Oct. 1. But conservatives were so successful at putting Democrats on defense over Obamacare that Democrats barely even waged a fight on spending.
The House-passed continuing resolution funds the government through Dec. 15 at a spending level of $986.3 billion, roughly what the government is currently spending after the sequester. Senate Democrats plan to strip out the bill's language that prohibits funding for Obamacare, but senior aides privately concede that they'll reluctantly accept the sequester level and won't risk a shutdown for higher spending. The White House has steered clear of using its primary leverage -- a veto threat -- to unwind the sequester.
The Budget Control Act calls for a fiscal 2014 spending level of $1.058 trillion, before the sequester cuts that to $967 billion. The sequester would bring down the spending level to $967 billion either way. Senior Democratic aides insist this is temporary and the low spending levels won't be locked in. But voting to establish a lower top-line spending level in the short term cedes their leverage to ultimately scrap sequestration cuts.
"By extending last year's post-sequester levels, Speaker Boehner is trying to lock those additional spending cuts into place and create a new baseline from which future negotiations must begin," read the CAP brief, written by President Neera Tanden and economic expert Michael Linden. "Having Congress adopt those levels in the short term is likely to make it easier for conservatives to keep those cuts in place for the long term."
The sequester was designed to be a sword of Damocles that forced both parties to strike a deficit-reduction agreement. The cuts were never supposed to be permanent -- neither side liked the thoughtless way they were apportioned. But where Democrats still want to replace it with a mix of targeted spending cuts and new tax revenues, Republicans have decided they'd rather maintain the sequester-level spending than give up even a penny in new taxes.
It's largely unheard of for a party that controls only the House to threaten a shutdown to demand the party controlling the Senate and White House gut its signature legislation. And yet that's where conservatives, through scorched-earth tactics and a fierce pressure campaign directed at reluctant GOP leaders, have steered the debate.
None of this means the battle is a win-win for the GOP. The squabble over Obamacare is hurting the party politically by shining a light on its deep divisions over tactics. It'll hurt Republicans even more if the government shuts down, polls suggest. But on the substance, conservatives are poised to score another victory in the real fight that has torn Washington apart since 2011 -- just months after they were crushed in an election.
And on top of that, the right wing proved that its iron grip on the GOP leaders, particularly in the House, remains as strong as ever, by coercing them into a dead-end Obamacare fight that even they wanted to avoid because they knew it would be irrational and self-defeating for the party. But they're poised to score a big policy victory anyway.