Put this in the “small accomplishments” category for an especially gridlocked Congress: It appears increasingly likely that, with little fuss, lawmakers will approve a bipartisan compromise in coming days that will keep government running past Friday, when a short-term funding measure that has kept the lights on expires.
Partisan clashes have brought the government to the brink of a shutdown three times in the past year. But this time, appropriators from the House and Senate have been quietly working toward the unveiling, expected late Monday, of a compromise spending measure that would outline how government agencies should spend nearly $1 trillion through Sept. 30, 2012.
President Obama and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper remain at odds over a proposed oil pipeline from Canada through the U.S., with Obama showing no interest in speeding up a project that the Harper sees as vital to his nation's economy. (Dec. 7)
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One thing the negotiators have had going for them is that they’ve been given space to work, their efforts largely overshadowed by a bitter fight between Republicans and President Obama over extending a one-year cut in the payroll tax, paid by 160 million workers, when it lapses at the end of the month.
It’s also helped that Congress agreed to an overall spending level for the year — often the most contentious issue — as part of the August debt deal. And talks have been smoothed as both parties have come to grips with the need for compromise. While Republicans hold a majority in the House, it has become clear that a bloc of several dozen members who want dramatic spending cuts will probably oppose almost any appropriations deal, meaning that Republicans need Democratic votes to get a bill passed.
The payroll tax fight will continue this week as the House votes on a GOP-authored proposal that would link the extension of the tax cut sought by Obama with Republican priorities, including a measure to speed the construction of the controversial Keystone XL oil pipeline.
On Sunday, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) predicted that some Democrats who support construction of the 1,700-mile pipeline from Canada to the Gulf Coast would vote for the Republican bill.
But Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) has said the GOP measure is a “partisan joke” that cannot win approval in the Democratic-controlled Senate. Speaking Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) acknowledged that the pipeline was “probably not going to sell.” He predicted that Congress would find a way to broker a different bipartisan compromise to extend the tax cut.
Before concluding work for the year, Congress must tackle other major issues as well, including figuring out how to avert a scheduled deep cut in reimbursement rates paid to doctors under Medicare and whether to extend benefits for the unemployed.
Lawmakers had hoped to settle all of the issues and leave town by the end of this week. But members are already preparing for the possibility that continued disputes could force them to remain in session over the weekend and beyond.
Even so, leaders in both parties have been increasingly optimistic that one task that won’t hold things up is Congress’s most basic job: funding the government. They hope to bring the spending compromise to a vote this week and spare Washington the specter of another shutdown drama for nearly a year.