As President Obama and congressional leaders continue fighting over how to extend the payroll-tax holiday amid the prospect of a partial government shutdown at midnight on Friday, Republicans began conceding on Wednesday that Congress will have to pass another short-term spending measure.
Yet even as the chambers and executive branch are at a stalemate over how to deal with year-end issues, the House may adjourn for the weekend nonetheless. Members would return to Washington next week presumably to adopt a final package extending the payroll-tax cut and federal unemployment insurance while also preventing a scheduled reduction in Medicare reimbursement to doctors; and to approve an omnibus measure combining the remaining nine 2012 appropriations bills.
How they get there is, of course, the more-than $900 billion question.
Meanwhile, the federal apparatus began contingency planning in the event of a partial shutdown even as the White House played down that possibility.
"We do need to be prepared for any contingency, and in case Congress does not act, we are taking the steps necessary to be prepared if a lapse in funding should occur," said Kenneth Baer, an Office of Management and Budget spokesman. "That is why agencies are sending an e-mail to employees this afternoon to alert them to this possibility and how it would affect them."
The White House first floated the idea of another continuing resolution on Tuesday to allow more time for Obama and Senate Democrats to strike a compromise with House Republicans on the payroll-tax cut package. As recently as Monday, such a measure seemed unnecessary as the appropriations conference committee neared a deal on a spending package for nine of the bills that were not ready by the fiscal year's Oct. 1 start. But as it became clear that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev. -- with the White House's tacit blessing -- would slow-walk finalization of the conference report to gain leverage in the payroll-tax cut debate, Republicans did not embrace the idea of an eighth CR.
But on Wednesday, Republicans began acknowledging one is inevitable.
A senior GOP aide said: “It looks like we’ll have to do that” -- in reference to a stopgap spending measure.
House Republicans also confirmed that their leaders are likely to dismiss them for the weekend.
Rep. Tim Scott, R-S.C., the freshmen liaison to House GOP leadership, said there's a 70-30 percent chance that they will leave town this weekend, but then also a 70-30 percent chance that they will be back next week.
CR aside, House Republicans are still demanding Senate action on the payroll-tax cut package they passed on Tuesday night, even though Reid called it “dead on arrival” because it contains controversial policy riders.
“This is President Obama's top domestic priority, and he and Senate Democrats are threatening to shut down the government a week before Christmas because they can't figure out how to get it done,” said Michael Steel, a spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio.
White House press secretary Jay Carney scoffed at talk of a government shutdown.
A compromise, he said, “is entirely doable” within the confines of a short-term continuing resolution. “We don’t even need to get to that point, but if we were, later in the week, to be in that situation, then they should just pass a short-term CR to ensure that there’s no disruption in the functioning of government, and then finish their business,” Carney said on Wednesday.
Technically, if Democrats and Republicans can reach accord on the payroll-tax cut package on Wednesday, there’s still time to approve the omnibus before the current continuing resolution expires on Friday if leaders filed it with the House Rules Committee by midnight, explained a senior congressional aide.
Processing such a voluminous bill -- in terms of both its more than 3,000 pages as well as its sweeping reach -- adds to the challenge. In addition, aides said, there is a political necessity of allowing rank-and-file members and the public adequate time to review it.
Meanwhile, Senate Republicans didn’t seem to hear their House counterparts’ calls for movement on the House-passed payroll-tax-cut package.
Repeating a step he took on Tuesday night, Reid on Wednesday morning requested unanimous consent for an immediate vote on the House package, drawing a GOP objection.
Democrats say they have the votes to immediately reject the measure, a step they say would spur final negotiations on how to extend the payroll-tax cut and unemployment benefits, and spare doctors a pay cut, in a manner that can pass both chambers and be signed by Obama. Reid knew Republicans would object, but wanted to highlight refusal by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who as recently as Tuesday was on the same page with House GOP leaders in calling for a quick vote.
"Let's vote on this now," Reid said.
McConnell objected and instead sought a vote on the omnibus, even though the conference report hasn’t been filed yet.
Congress's "most immediate concern is the deadline that is two days away," McConnell said, referring to the continuing resolution's expiration. "We ought to finish our most immediate priority first."
House Republicans are discussing taking the contents of the unsigned omnibus conference report to the House floor as a separate bill. If it passed, under this scenario, it would then be sent over to the Senate. When asked about that option, House Appropriations Chairman Harold Rogers, R-Ky., said, “Everything is being considered.”
Such a strategy, designed to pressure Senate Democrats, could be problematic for House Republicans, however. For starters, Boehner calculated a while ago that he would need some Democratic votes to win House passage of the omnibus.
But Boehner told his conference Wednesday afternoon that he believes Democratic conferees would be hard-pressed to vote against the contents of a package they helped craft.
The delay is leading some Democrats who helped negotiate the omnibus to vent about Reid’s strategy.
“We should get it done and not do another CR,” said Rep. Jim Moran, D-Va., ranking member on the House Appropriations Interior and Environment subcommittee. As a conferee, Moran said he would sign off on the bill, and he called its delay an “injustice to America” and particularly unfair to federal workers who would be affected by a shutdown.
Another potential landmine for Republicans is the possibility that the Senate could amend such a stand-alone House bill, and then kick it back.
“That would put the dynamite right back in our House, wouldn’t it?” said Rep. Trent Frank, R-Ariz.
Marc Ambinder, Kelsey Snell, Dan Friedman, and Ben Terris contributed