Everyone’s looking to the debt limit vote next year as the opportunity for the GOP to shut down the government. However, that may come a whole lot sooner.

Since there was no budget passed for this year, the government is currently operating under a continuing spending resolution, which expires on December 3. They have to extend that or somehow pass some spending measure to keep the government functioning. Nancy Pelosi wants that continuing resolution to last through the budget year, until September 30, 2011. But Mitch McConnell has balked at that, and he could have the backup from his caucus to keep it blocked.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.) said Thursday that Republicans won’t support a large spending bill to fund the federal government through fiscal 2011.

The decision pushes the fight over the budget until next year, when Republicans take control of the House of Representatives and gain half a dozen seats in the Senate.

In remarks on the Senate floor, Mr. McConnell said the lesson of the midterm elections two weeks ago is that “Americans don’t want Congress passing massive trillion-dollar bills that have been thrown together behind closed doors.”

The goal of McConnell, and House Republicans, is to force a shorter-term spending measure that lasts perhaps until February or March, so they would have a stronger hand in shaping budget cuts immediately for fiscal year 2011 at that time.

What’s so revealing about this is that the omnibus spending bill that Democrats were readying already accepted many of McConnell’s demands for spending cuts.

Covering virtually the entire government, the giant $1.1 trillion-plus omnibus bill already represents a major concession by Democrats, who have tailored the measure to spending caps McConnell himself championed only months ago.

New discretionary spending — including defense — would grow by $18 billion, or an estimated 2 percent increase over 2010, and Obama’s own 2011 budget would be cut by as much as $26 billion to meet these targets.

If it fails now — and a short-term resolution is adopted — Republicans would gain a powerful vehicle to advance not just their budget agenda but also health care riders early in the next Congress.

Democrats failed to pass a budget, backed themselves into a corner, accepted Republican demands, and after the election, the Republicans moved the goalposts again.

So it goes.

The White House apparently wants the 10-month CR, and full discretion to direct the money. If they cannot agree on a decision, or if Republicans block anything from passing, we could see a government shutdown as soon as December 4.

Grover Norquist must be thrilled.

David Dayen

David Dayen