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Congress readies measure to keep government open until Dec. 14

As a fallback, agencies have been instructed to plan as if Congress will eventually pass a continuing resolution running through Feb. 15.

Acknowledging Congress will be in session for at least two weeks next month, House and Senate leaders are preparing a continuing resolution to last through Dec. 14, although extending that by another week is not out of the question given the heavy remaining workload.

That date will likely be included in the new CR Congress will take up next week to replace the current stopgap budget bill that runs through Nov. 16.

House Appropriations Chairman David Obey, whose panel is responsible for much of Congress' remaining business, said he was "not optimistic" the session could be concluded by Dec. 14 and another week might be necessary.

None of the 12 FY08 appropriations bills have been signed into law, and the $460 billion Pentagon funding bill might be among the only ones to become law before Congress adjourns for the Thanksgiving recess.

This week the House and Senate will take up a $215 billion combined bill funding the departments of Labor, HHS, Education, Veterans Affairs and military construction projects.

President Bush has promised to veto the measure over its $10 billion boost above his request for health, education and job-training programs, and Democrats lack the votes to override a veto.

That means lawmakers will likely have two to three weeks in December to resolve roughly half the entire discretionary budget for the fiscal year.

Adding to the confusion, Democrats on Monday night considered splitting up the bill, knowing that Senate Republicans might be able to break it up using Senate rules. But late last night, Democrats decided to stick with the plan to keep the Labor-HHS and Military Construction-VA bills together.

Still, if Senate Republicans do manage to split the two bills, the VA funding bill might also get signed into law quickly.

If Congress cannot get its work done in time for Christmas, as a fallback, federal agencies have already been instructed to plan as if Congress will eventually pass a CR running through Feb. 15, sources said.

Democratic leaders, who lambasted Republicans last year for punting outstanding appropriations bills until this February, are pushing to avoid a similar outcome.

There has been speculation that Democrats are preparing to quietly acquiesce in large part to Bush's overall spending limits, with perhaps some flexibility for veterans' health funding, in order to complete the appropriations bills this year.

Additional domestic funds could then be attached to Bush's new war-funding request early next year, the thinking goes.

In a speech Monday at the National Press Club, Obey said Democrats should not "meekly comply" with Bush's spending limits, which are $22 billion below the Democrats' budget, but rather "try to make it as difficult as possible for the president to be irresponsible and artificially confrontational." He also said Congress should stay in session and finish its work this year.

"I certainly don't want to see a continuing resolution extend beyond what it takes to get our work done this year," Obey said. "You wait until next year, you are totally immersed in presidential politics ... we need to clear the deck and get on with next year's business next year."

Democrats are also under pressure to approve some additional funds for Iraq war operations, as the Pentagon bill will not contain any, save flexibility to pay for the war out of its base budget and perhaps extra money for mine-resistant vehicles.

That bill would replace the current CR, which extended last year's $70 billion "bridge fund" until Nov. 16.

Democrats are considering a new stand-alone bridge fund measure with conditions aimed at appeasing anti-war liberals, but that would likely also be met with a Bush veto.