It's crunch time for congressional budget negotiators and House Republicans, desperate to avoid another government shutdown, aren't taking any chances.
If Rep. Paul Ryan and Sen. Patty Murray fail to produce the framework for a budget agreement early next week, GOP lawmakers said they are prepared to pass a short-term continuing resolution as a preemptive measure before heading home for the holiday break next Friday.
"We'd rather get a long-term budget agreement. But if there's no sign of one, we'll have to pass something short term," said Rep. James Lankford of Oklahoma, the Republican Policy chairman and a member of the GOP leadership.
Leadership doesn't want to step on Ryan's hard-won progress, especially at a critical point in the negotiations. But they can't afford to wait much longer to act. As Lankford pointed out, the House has a three-day rule for moving bills from the Rules Committee to the House floor. That means, barring extraordinary maneuvering, GOP leadership must file its CR no later than Wednesday to pass the measure by Friday.
The House adjourns Dec. 13 for a three-and-a-half-week holiday recess, the same day budget negotiators must report to Congress whether they have reached a long-term agreement to set spending levels and soften sequestration cuts. Congress does not reconvene until the week of Jan. 6.
Without a new funding measure, either an omnibus bill based on the spending levels set by Ryan and Murray or another short-term CR that funds the government at sequester levels, the government will shut down Jan. 16. That's a deadline Republicans, still reeling from the October shutdown, are desperate to avoid.
"We need to leave town with something on the shelf," said Rep. John Fleming, R-La. "The key is, we don't want to give the impression that we're gone for three or four weeks and haven't done anything" to avoid another shutdown in January.
Fleming, who said he's skeptical that Ryan and Murray will announce any kind of agreement soon, added: "I'm 99 percent sure we're going to leave town next Friday with a clean CR at sequester levels."
At the same time, Republicans indicated that if budget negotiators were to unveil even the framework of an agreement next week, that could prompt House leadership to hold off on passing a contingency CR. "If they get an agreement on a budget deal that can be achieved next week, and we can work out the details the week we come back [in January], that's fine," said Rep. Steve Scalise, chairman of the Republican Study Committee.
Some Republicans think a CR would add urgency to the budget talks. The reason is simple: Any short-term funding measure would be at the $967 billion annual spending mark mandated by the Budget Control Act. These lower spending levels would be reached by ushering in a second round of sequester cuts, which Democrats—and some Republicans—are hoping to eliminate.
Democrats are anxious to avoid a short-term CR, since it would lock in deeper cuts.
"A CR is simply an indication that the House is totally dysfunctional," Rep. Chris Van Hollen, a Democratic member of the budget conference, said Wednesday.
Van Hollen, who remains hopeful for a budget deal, said Democratic leaders are privately discussing their own alternative in case the talks fall through. Their proposal would include an alternative to the pending sequestration cuts, as well as an extension of unemployment insurance benefits, which are set to expire Dec. 28, according to a House Democratic aide.
On the Republican side, some lawmakers—especially those representing military-heavy districts—are opposed to another round of sequestration because of the $20 billion that will be slashed from the Defense Department's budget. GOP lawmakers on Wednesday estimated that 20 to 30 "defense hawks" in their conference would vote to protect the Pentagon from sequestration.
But in interviews with several lawmakers who have a significant military presence on their home turf, none was outright opposed to passing a CR. Even Fleming, who noted that he has "two big bases" in his Louisiana district, indicated that he'll support a short-term funding measure to avoid another shutdown. "I don't think there are enough of us to prevent that CR from getting passed," Fleming said.