As the budget conference committee continues to work toward an agreement that would set spending levels for the remainder of this fiscal year and fiscal 2015, House Republicans are contemplating a fallback plan: a short-term continuing resolution that would fund the government through April 15 and buy budget negotiators more time to strike a long-term deal.
According to multiple lawmakers familiar with the situation, budget negotiators in both parties are hopeful that the foundation for a long-term deal could be laid in December. But the details almost certainly won't be solidified before Dec. 13, the deadline for the conference committee to report an agreement — and the day lawmakers leave town for the holiday recess.
At the same time, the current government-funding bill expires Jan. 15, and House members don't return to Washington until Jan. 7.
To eliminate the threat of another government shutdown, and to ease the pressure on the conference committee, House Republicans expect to pass a three-month CR before leaving town on Dec. 13.
"You will see a 90-day CR happen," said one Republican lawmaker, who asked not to be identified so he could speak frankly about strategy.
Meanwhile, House Speaker John Boehner and other top lawmakers insisted they remained optimistic that the panel, led by House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and Senate Budget Chairwoman Patty Murray, D-Wash., can come to some agreement. Yet Boehner also said that if the conferees do not reach a deal by then, "the House will be prepared to move a CR."
He did not specify the length of time such a new temporary spending package would cover, or whether it might contain so-called "sequester relief" — more funding to soften the scheduled cuts — and where that money might come from.
Budget negotiators insist they're still aiming to meet next month's deadline. But Republicans on the committee, wary of Democratic accusations that they're setting up another government shutdown, acknowledge the wisdom of crafting contingency plans in the event negotiations fall through.
"We haven't given up on Dec. 13," Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., a member of the conference committee, said Thursday before leaving Washington. Cole added: "But the later we go [without reaching an agreement], the more likely we are to pass a short-term CR."
Republicans say any such temporary funding bill would be based on spending levels set out in the 2011 Budget Control Act.
That's a problem for some lawmakers on both sides of the aisle. Unless current law is changed, the act's scheduled across-the-board new cuts to military and domestic programs will deepen to $109 billion from $85 billion, as federal discretionary spending overall will be reduced from a level of $988 billion to $967 billion. The Department of Defense would absorb $20 billion more in fiscal 2014 cuts than it did in fiscal 2013.
That is something that many lawmakers in both parties say would be devastating, whether their respective concerns lean more heavily toward military or domestic programs.
Increasingly, though, Republicans are showing an openness to leaving the sequestration cuts in place if Ryan and Murray are unable to reach a deal. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell urged House Republicans to hold the line on sequestration in a meeting this week, and Ryan has said that if he can't get a good deal by mid-December, he would like to uphold the cuts as well. "The law is the law," he said at an event this week.
That represents a shift in ongoing discussions inside the budget conference committee. According to Murray, Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, was the only Republican to signal his satisfaction with maintaining the sequester cuts.
"A number of Senate Republicans I know are very, very concerned about getting sequestration replaced. ... I was struck by [Grassley's] comments because no one else that I've talked to shares that view," she told National Journal Daily last week.
House Appropriations Committee Chairman Harold Rogers, R-Ky., said Thursday he is hopeful that congressional negotiators are working to devise a budget framework lasting through fiscal 2015 that will also contain a two-year delay in scheduled sequestration spending cuts.
Rogers, standing outside the House chamber during Boehner's news conference Thursday, did not deny that there is talk of another CR already being planned by Republicans for a vote as soon as December, right before the Christmas break. He said that is one of "a number of things you hear being talked about."
But he says he's hopeful that will not be the path ahead.
"Look, I'm not into discussing a short- or long-term CR. I'm for an omnibus appropriations bill that puts into law what the Constitution requires of the Congress and the Appropriations Committee. And that is to oversee the expenditure of all federal funds," he said.
Rogers reiterated that he and Senate Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., are "out to get an omnibus appropriations bill [done] before Jan. 15 to avoid a shutdown."
And he said that's why he and Mikulski have pressed to get the budget topline number soon — as early as this week, if possible — from the negotiators. He and Mikulski and their committees will then take that number, he said, and divide it in 12 separate allocations for the appropriations subcommittees to finalize their 12 annual spending bills.
If another CR is instead necessary, Rogers speculated there would be some "sequester relief," but did not elaborate on how that would happen.