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House shutdown vote expected to be quick but crucial

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If all goes as planned, the House of Representatives should take just a few moments Thursday to formally unravel a stalemate that had stymied Congress for months.

Although the chamber is on recess this week in observance of the Jewish New Year, a handful of lawmakers will trek to the Capitol at 11 a.m. and vote to keep the federal government’s doors open when the fiscal year ends Friday at midnight.

Their action will provide federal funding for four days. On Tuesday, the entire House will return to action and hold a more formal roll-call vote on a spending measure that will last into mid-November, the product of a bipartisan compromise in the Senate approved on Monday.

Rep. Andy Harris (R-Md.) is scheduled to wield the gavel for the quick but critically important session Thursday, tapped in part because he lives not far from Washington in Baltimore County. Rep. John Abney Culberson (R-Tex.) has been asked to formally make the motion to allow the days-long stopgap funding bill to be approved.

The House will then hold a voice vote on the issue, allowing the measure to pass on the strength of the affirmative voices of whoever shows up.

That a solution lasting only a few weeks is necessary at all is the result of a months-long stalemate: the divided Congress’ inability to agree to a series of long-term measures to fund the government through all of the 2012 fiscal year.

That the House must first approve a resolution lasting only a few days became necessary when Congress got tripped up in in recent weeks over the bill that will keep the lights on for a month and half. They were torn over whether additional spending for disaster relief needed to be offset with spending cuts to other federal agencies.

Republicans said it did and proposed cutting $1.5 billion from a program to encourage the production of energy-efficient cars. The plan was designed to balance out $1 billion in spending on disaster relief that was to help an overworked Federal Emergency Management Agency get through this week without running out of money.

Democrats said providing government assistance for disaster victims should not require cutting spending, particularly from a program that they believed had created jobs.

The Senate solved the conflict when FEMA said it would make it through the week without the additional dollars after all.

The senators agreed to drop the $1 billion intended to provide relief before the week ended, along with the matching spending cut, and everyone declared victory.

The spending measure will now fund government at a rate of $1.043 trillion for the year and includes spending authority for $2.65 billion for FEMA starting Saturday.

But the conflict lasted long enough to bleed into the House’s long-scheduled recess this week. Loath to summon members back to Washington — particularly on Thursday, which is the first day of the Rosh Hashanah holiday — congressional leaders came up with the odd two-step vote.

It is not the first time a partisan blowup has been solved with a quickie voice vote. In August, two senators took 26 seconds to hold a voice vote on a short-term funding extension for the Federal Aviation Administration. The conflict had partially shut down the agency and furloughed employees for two weeks.

The outcome Thursday is not entirely a sure thing.

It could be disrupted if any member returns to Washington to object to the procedure. The intervention of even one representative would halt the process in its tracks and require leaders to summon members scattered all over the country to formally take roll. At least 218 members, a majority of the House, would be needed for it to count.

Twenty-four conservatives did reject a similar measure last week because they wanted to be on record opposing the level of spending set in the bill, which is a 1.5 percent cut from this year but $24 billion more than House Republicans voted to spend in their own budget in the spring.

But GOP leadership aides have said they are confident that there will be no objections and that the voice vote will go off without a hitch. After all, members who want to protest spending levels will get a chance to do so Tuesday. And with only a day to go before the Sept. 30 deadline, any member who halted the vote would risk being solely responsible for a government shutdown.

A spokeswoman for Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) — who led the bloc that opposed the spending bill last week — said Wednesday that he does not plan to return to Washington Thursday to object to the vote.

But this House does have a history of maverick members taking unexpected stands.

And a spokesman for Rep. Joe Walsh (R-Ill.), who argued in an op-ed in USA Today this week that “every battle over every dollar that Washington spends is worth the fight,” did not respond to questions about his intentions.

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