House, Senate aim to prevent shutdown

Senior House and Senate leaders voiced optimism that they could reach agreement on a stopgap spending measure that would prevent a government shutdown shortly before the November election.

Congress has more than two months to figure out how to fund the government this fall, but because lawmakers are only in session for less than three weeks during that time, discussions about a continuing resolution have heated up in recent days. The Senate has made little progress passing annual appropriations bills, necessitating a stopgap measure to keep the government’s lights on through the November election.

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It could be political suicide to have a government shutdown before voters go to the polls — for both sides of the aisle. Congress's approval rating is a scant 16 percent, according to a July Gallup poll.

The central issue has been the length of a stopgap, and both sides appeared to be moving toward a six-month bill, which would keep the government running into 2013.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said Thursday talks were occurring “at a high level” and had been “very productive.” Reid also suggested that he would support a continuing resolution that would extend into 2013, aligning him with House conservatives who have pushed their leadership for a six-month bill. “It would be to my preference that we do something that would alleviate this being an issue that we have during the lame duck,” Reid said.

“I am hopeful and confident we can reach a conclusion in the near future,” he added.

House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said at a separate news conference that no decisions had been made on the length of the continuing resolution.

“We’re considering lots of options when it comes to the [continuing resolution]. We don’t really have anything to announce at this point,” Boehner told reporters during his weekly press conference. “We’re going to come to an agreement, I would hope, with our colleagues in the Senate to try to make sure that the government is funded and that there’s no opportunity for games to be played. And when we have something to announce, we’ll be happy to do it.”

House conservatives met with Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) on Wednesday, where they urged him to back a six-month spending bill that would extend past a lame-duck session in November and into 2013. 

Conservatives have voiced worries that Democrats would try to bait them into a government shutdown fight in the middle of the campaign, and they don’t want the issue to be used as leverage in talks over a broader range of expiring provisions during the lame-duck session after the election.

Kicking major spending decisions into 2013 also could leave them in the hands of a Republican president and Senate if the party is successful in November.

Conservative lawmakers and aides have suggested they would be willing to accept higher spending levels in a continuing resolution than they have voted for in the past in order to get a six-month deal. Leaders are discussing a measure based roughly on the current spending level, which is $1.043 trillion. That would be $15 billion higher than the cap in the House GOP budget resolution authored by Rep. Paul Ryan (Wis.).

Yet senior House GOP appropriators favor a three-month continuing resolution that would force Congress to tackle the issue again before the end of the year. The current fiscal year ends Sept. 30.

Many Democrats believe that they have a tactical advantage on the two main components of the financial policy fight coming at the end of the year — the expiration of the Bush-era tax rates and the $109 billion in automatic spending cuts for 2013 — and they do not want the waters muddied.

On taxes, Democrats cite polls indicating the public supports extending tax breaks for the middle class while raising taxes on the wealthy. Democrats also believe that the disproportionate cuts to the Pentagon budget will force defense hawks to accept a balanced replacement that includes closing tax loopholes.

Democrats also could benefit from a six-month extension because it would lock in spending at the current rate — $15 billion more annually than the House-passed budget — for a longer period.

— Bernie Becker and Erik Wasson contributed to this report.