Stopgap measure to wait until after recess

Congressional leaders will not move this week on a stopgap measure to extend government funding for six months, leaving lawmakers a narrow window in September to avert a government shutdown before the election.

Republicans and Democrats have been discussing a funding bill in recent days, but aides said Monday it would not be unveiled before lawmakers head out of town for a five-week recess at the end of the week.

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While House and Senate leaders had voiced optimism about a spending deal late last week, one Republican aide said there was “zero chance” it would be ready this week.

The need for more time is not surprising: The Sept. 30 deadline for extending funding is two months away, and Congress rarely acts that far in advance. But when lawmakers return in September, the House will have just eight legislative days to pass legislation.

Aides say appropriators are waiting for technical budget data from the administration and Congressional Budget Office that is coming in August to write the spending measure.

Both sides also have political reasons to want a deal sooner rather than later. House conservatives in particular have pushed for a six-month agreement that would take the spending issue off the table both in the run-up to the election and in the lame-duck frenzy to follow, when Congress will have to address expiring tax rates, looming spending cuts and, potentially, another hike in the debt ceiling. In return for a longer bill, the conservatives have signaled they will not push for deep spending cuts or defunding of the 2010 healthcare reform — two of their top priorities over the last 18 months.

Momentum began to build last week for a six-month stopgap spending bill, or continuing resolution, at current spending levels. The bill would likely adhere roughly to the $1.043 trillion projected spending rate for 2012 — $4 billion less than the Budget Control Act top-line number for 2013, but
$15 billion more than the level set in the House-passed budget resolution.

The House Appropriations Committee has been crafting its 12 annual bills based on the House budget number, while the Senate has been using the figure from the Budget Control Act that raised the debt ceiling in 2011. The legislation would push a final resolution on the spending level differences and on dozens of policy riders to the spring of 2013.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) also spoke favorably of a bill that lasts beyond the December lame-duck session. Analysts see Reid’s move as a calculation that the continuing resolution is best left out of a battle over expiring tax rates and automatic sequester cuts, a fight where Democrats think they have an advantage.

That puts Reid in rare alignment with leaders of the conservative Republican Study Committee, who last week met with House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) to push for a six-month bill. House Republican appropriators had initially favored a three-month continuing resolution, which would force Congress to act again on spending before the end of the year.

House Democrats have not ruled out agreeing to a six-month bill, an aide said. A White House spokesman, Josh Earnest, did not comment on the length of a potential funding measure.

“The president certainly believes that we shouldn’t be in a position where we’re playing chicken in terms of shutting down the government, either in the election season or outside of the election season,” Earnest said Monday.

The House conservatives are getting support from the political arm of the Heritage Foundation, which has advocated aggressively for holding the line on spending cuts and fighting the healthcare law.

In an op-ed in The Washington Examiner last week, the leaders of Heritage Action for America, Michael Needham and Tim Chapman, called on conservatives to pass a continuing resolution “that funds the government until the next Congress has begun.”

Heritage spokesman Dan Holler said Monday that the “No. 1 priority” for conservatives is to avoid a lame-duck session in which a major agreement becomes imperative.

“Those have historically not worked out well for conservatives,” he said. “Anything that happens in the lame duck is going to be a bad deal.”
Holler said there was also “widespread acceptance” among conservatives that they would be unable to achieve deep cuts in spending or defunding of the healthcare law right before the November election.