Final government shutdown fight rings out the old year

House and Senate appropriators are laboring to produce a $900 billion omnibus bill by the beginning of next week.

Failure to reach a deal would result in a government shutdown when current funding runs out Dec. 16. All sides stand to lose public support from such a standoff, which would confirm to many that Washington no longer functions.

House Republicans, eyeing approval numbers for Congress that have dipped into the single digits, are keen to avoid a bruising shutdown.

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House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) confirmed on the House floor Friday that to smooth passage of the omnibus, the GOP will stick to the $1.043 trillion spending level of the August debt-ceiling deal with the White House.

Policy riders, however, could prove to be stumbling blocks to smooth passage.

Abortion and climate change measures demanded by Republican lawmakers remain especially problematic, aides said.

The fight over such riders led White House Budget Director Jack Lew to warn of a looming spending “crisis” late last week. Lew signaled that President Obama could veto a bill that contains limitations on abortion funding, that blocks environmental priorities or that cripples healthcare and Wall Street reform.

Conservative activists are pushing for the inclusion of the riders and argue that House leaders should buy conservative GOP votes with them.

GOP leaders were embarrassed when 101 conservatives defected in votes on three annual appropriations bills packaged together last month. The bills were approved with Democratic support.

The question for GOP leaders is how many votes the riders can buy.

Some 50 House members signed a letter in September saying they would not support any appropriations measures at the $1.043 trillion level, suggesting the riders’ value is limited. Leaders no longer have earmarks to sweeten the pot.

The House Republican defections have empowered House Democrats at the negotiating table, and they have made it clear they will not support any omnibus that contains “ideological” riders.

“House leaders have to decide which is more embarrassing, a large defection or a government shutdown,” one Democratic aide said.

The omnibus wraps together the nine remaining annual spending bills. 

Three spending bills —those for Agriculture, Commerce/Justice/Science and Transportation/HUD — were bundled as a minibus and passed by both chambers last month.

According to sources, most of the nine remaining bills are on track to be approved.

For example, limitations on healthcare reform in the section on IRS funding appear on track to be removed.

There is also a failsafe if abortion and climate-change differences cannot be resolved. 

Appropriators could put forth a partial continuing resolution (CR) to fund the agencies covered in the Interior and Environmental bill and the Labor, Health bill.

The partial CR would simply extend appropriations provisions until Sept. 30, with overall spending trimmed slightly so that the bills are in line with the August deal. This will cause problems for these agencies since they have been operating on such a CR through all of 2011.

Some aides remain hopeful that a partial CR can be avoided, but others are worried.

One aide said Rep. Denny Rehberg (R-Mont.), the lead GOP Labor bill negotiator, is running for a Senate seat and cannot be seen as compromising with Democrats.

The White House last week highlighted a handful of riders it views as most problematic.

Communications director Dan Pfeiffer said a rider that would eliminate funding for Title X Family Planning programs is unacceptable because it limits women’s access to healthcare.

He said Obama objects to a “dozen riders that would roll back years of bipartisan progress on protecting the public’s health through clean air and clean water laws.”

The environmental provision the White House most objects to is one that would prevent the Environmental Protection Agency from regulating greenhouse gases under existing clean-air laws.

Pfeiffer also cited riders that eliminated funding for Planned Parenthood, hindered Wall Street and healthcare reform, opened up the area around the Grand Canyon for mining activities and prevented the Consumer Product Safety Commission from operating a public product safety database.

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Aides said that the GOP will likely get some of its riders into the bill, as it did in the April continuing resolution that averted a government shutdown. That CR prevented the District of Columbia from spending its own funds on abortions and eliminated some administration “czars.”

Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho), the top House negotiator on the environment bill, is pushing a rider to prevent courts from addressing whether the gray wolf should be an endangered species.

Republicans are not seen as making an especially strong push for anti-union or anti-National Public Radio riders.

Some aides are also worried that leaders may tack on the payroll tax extension, but others see that as unlikely.

“I don’t see what votes adding the payroll tax extension gets you,” one aide said.

Appropriations bill have been used as vehicles for tax stimulus measures in the past, but special waivers have to be obtained from the Ways and Means Committee for tax measures to be included.