Appropriators preparing stopgap bill to avoid government shutdown in March

The House Appropriations Committee has started writing a stopgap spending bill as part of an effort to avert a government shutdown after March 27, when the current continuing resolution expires.

The move is a strong signal that House and Senate deals on more detailed appropriations bills — deals that were close to being finished last December — are unlikely.

Work on the stopgap bill is technical at this point, and it’s unclear how long the stopgap bill would fund the government. The most likely scenario is a six-month bill to finish out the fiscal year.

House Appropriations Chairman Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) said Wednesday that the top-line spending level in the bill — a source of friction between the parties in previous fights over government funding — is up in the air.

“We are beginning to write a CR, so we’ll see,” he said.

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Rogers has difficulty proceeding because he does not know whether the $85 billion cut to spending from sequestration will take effect on March 1. President Obama on Tuesday called for Congress to delay those cuts and find an alternative.

The challenge for Rogers is that, of the $85 billion in sequester cuts for 2013, $70 billion would come from discretionary appropriations that are the purview of his committee.

Rogers blasted the sequester on Wednesday.

“I think it the stupidest way to do business that we have ever had,” he said. “I don’t like any across-the-board cuts. That’s what people elected us to do, to make decisions about where money should be spent. When we abdicate that responsibility and allow across-the-board cuts, it’s not smart.”

The continuing resolution now funding the government has authorized a total level of spending at $1.047 trillion. Under the fiscal-cliff deal, that number must be reduced to $1.043 trillion. The figure is expected to drop to around $980 billion if the sequester and other changes are taken into effect, a source said. 

Senate Democrats are likely to insist on keeping spending at current levels and are working on a sequester replacement that includes tax increases.

Rogers is still holding out hope that the current stopgap can be replaced with at least some of the regular 12 full-length appropriations bills. He said it is time to focus on entitlement spending rather than talking about new taxes or more cuts to appropriations.

“Now is the time to talk about cutting spending, mandatory spending. That’s where the money is,” he said.

Correction: The story has been updated to accurately reflect the current CR level.