Mitch McConnell has often differed from the House GOP’s hardline stance on the federal budget. He was the one who came up with the Rube Goldberg-like “resolution of disapproval” process on the debt limit deal which broke the united Republican front. Now, McConnell has added a largely symbolic but crucial action today on the escalating battle over the FY 2013 budget.

McConnell, strangely enough, is the Senate Minority Leader but also sits on the Appropriations Committee. I guess he doesn’t want to stop the gravy train. So he had a vote today on the opening process for spending bills for the next fiscal year. And by his vote, he stood with the White House, for the spending target outlined in last year’s debt limit deal, rather than falling below it.

The committee met to divide up the $1.047 trillion allocated to discretionary spending under the debt deal — $19 billion more than allowed under the House-passed budget that Boehner supported.

McConnell cast his vote in absentia on Thursday.

His office noted the leader has said the Budget Control Act numbers are just ceilings, not floors, and he would work to cut spending going forward [...]

He was joined by most of the Republicans on the committee and all Democrats in advancing the spending levels to be used to construct the 12 annual appropriations bills.

Sens. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) and Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) voted against the allocations.

So all but two Appropriations Committee members – and that includes 11 Republicans (I assume Mark Kirk, still recuperating from a stroke, didn’t vote) – voted for the $1.047 trillion spending target. Only Johnson and Moran, part of the dead-end caucus in the Senate, voted against it.

Furthermore, McConnell made remarks on the Senate floor bolstering the case for the $1.047 trillion target:

“We have negotiated the top line for the discretionary spending for this coming fiscal year,” he said. “That process is normally done by the passage of a budget by the House and a budget by the Senate, with some reconciliation between the two bodies on the top line. But we already have that number. I wish to second what my friend the majority leader said. There is no good reason for this institution not to move forward with an appropriations process that avoids what we have done so frequently under both parties for years and years: either continuing resolutions or omnibus appropriations.”

Now you can see why the White House believes they can make a credible threat on this issue. They now have the buy-in of a substantial portion of the Republican Senate caucus, including the Minority Leader. The GOP is divided and the Democrats appear united. And presumably nobody wants a government shutdown four weeks before the election.

There are months to go until the deadline gets reached, so the dynamic could change. But Democrats are in the driver’s seat at the moment.