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Congress scrambles to avoid government shutdown days before deadline

Democrats are coalescing around a short-term bill to preserve existing funding until late January. But Republicans want a longer stopgap measure.

WASHINGTON — Congressional leaders are scrambling to avoid a government shutdown with less than four days to go before funding runs out.

Lawmakers face a series of obstacles, the chief of which is that the two parties disagree over how long to push the deadline into the future.

Lawmakers have until the end of Friday to find a solution. Without a bill signed by President Joe Biden, nonessential government services will cease operations.

Democrats are coalescing around a short-term bill to maintain federal funding through January, aides and lawmakers said.

"It'll probably be late-ish January," said Senate Appropriations Committee Chair Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., adding that he doesn't want to go beyond then because it could create complacency about negotiating a larger deal.

But Republicans want to push it later, and they have the power to filibuster the bill in the Senate.

"I'd rather go to February or March right now," said Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama, the top Republican on the Appropriations Committee. "I think it'd give us more time to seriously sit down."

Shelby said he is confident that lawmakers will work out an agreement.

"I don't think it'll shut down," he said.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said Tuesday that Democrats plan to act quickly, with the House likely to go first.

"As soon as tomorrow, the House is expected to take action to pass a CR [continuing resolution] that will fund the government into next year. Senate Democrats are ready to pass this legislation, get it done as quickly as possible to avoid a needless shutdown," he said in a floor speech. "If Republicans choose obstruction, there will be a shutdown entirely because of their own dysfunction."

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who predicted Tuesday that there won’t be a shutdown, said negotiations about the length of the stopgap bill continue.

“Yeah, we won’t shut down,” he told reporters.

Government funding must be approved annually, with a new plan for spending beginning every October. When lawmakers can't agree on a spending bill, they typically pass short-term legislation to keep spending at the same level, which means no changes to programs.

That is the route Congress took earlier this year, hoping it would give it time to negotiate a spending bill that allows it to adjust some spending levels.

Democrats are eager to strike that deal, with some complaining that the government is still operating at spending levels agreed to during the Trump administration. But they are reluctant to force a government shutdown over it.

Leahy said the sticking point is "toplines," or agreement with Republicans about just how much money the federal government should spend next year.

He said part of the problem is that "some" Republicans may not want to reach a deal because they prefer to maintain funding at Trump-era levels.

"There are others who realized they're not going to get the things they want," he said.

The House will need to move quickly to give the Senate time to pass a bill. The process could be significantly slowed if any senator objects and drags out the process beyond the deadline.

In 2018, Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., single-handedly forced a brief shutdown by objecting to a speedy vote on a spending agreement.

Further complicating matters, the Senate is struggling to wrap up the National Defense Authorization Act. The bill stalled Monday as Republicans demanded more time for debate and amendments.

Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said that as long as Democrats don't try to jam contentious add-ons into the short-term spending bill, he thinks lawmakers will reach an agreement.

"From my perspective, as long as we don't let the CR be the Grinch that steals Christmas, that's a good thing," he said.