Congress moves toward deal to avert government shutdown

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Democrats and Republicans appear to be nearing a deal for a short-term funding measure that would keep federal operations running for an additional two weeks, at least temporarily staving off a government shutdown that both parties seem to want to avoid.

House Republicans are preparing to debate and vote on a stopgap funding bill that would simultaneously keep the government open for two weeks past March 4 - when the current funding measure is set to expire - and cut $4 billion from the federal budget.

White House press secretary Jay Carney said on Monday that President Obama was would likely support the measure, although he noted that the president was wary of engaging in "repeated cycles of debate" on the matter. If the measure passes, it only buys two weeks until Congress has to work out another solution.

Carney warned that perpetual debate over the 2011 budget would be "bad for the economy because of the uncertainty it creates," and argued that the budget should be created with an eye for cutting spending without damaging economic recovery, according to the Hill.

Senate Democrats on Friday said they were "encouraged" by the proposal, and have also signaled a willingness to pass some version of the bill by the end of the week in order to keep the government running.

"We are encouraged to hear that Republicans are abandoning their demands for extreme measures like cuts to border security, cancer research and food safety inspectors and instead moving closer to Democrats' position that we should cut government spending in a smart, responsible way that targets waste and excess while keeping our economy growing," said a spokesperson for Majority Leader Harry Reid, who added that it "sounds like a modified version of what Democrats were talking about."

The $4 billion in cuts proposed by Republicans were achieved largely by mirroring reductions called for in President Obama's 2012 budget as well as eliminating funding for earmarks, making them more palatable for Democrats.

But the two parties appear little closer to reaching common ground in their long-term budget plans.

In a speech to the annual National Religious Broadcasters convention on Sunday night, House Speaker John Boehner framed the economic debate - and the prospect of a government shutdown - in moral terms.

"This debt is a mortal threat to our country. It is also a moral threat," Boehner said. "It is immoral to bind our children to as leeching and destructive a force as debt. It is immoral to rob our children's future and make them beholden to China."

"We have a moral responsibility to address the problems we face. That means working together to cut spending and rein in government - not shutting it down," he added.

In an appearance on CNN's "State of the Union" on Sunday, Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad reiterated the Democratic position that making severe cuts to the budget during a period of economic fragility would reduce economic growth.

"Every bipartisan commission that has tried to make a judgment on this has said be modest at the beginning, but do something big over the ten years in terms of getting our debt down," he told CNN's Candy Crowley. "Every single bipartisan commission -- there have been three -- has come to that very same conclusion: Don't try to balance this on 12 percent of the budget. Be comprehensive. Include everything, including revenue, and do it over the next decade. Put it in place now, but begin modestly."

He added that while he did not believe the two-week stopgap measure was the optimal solution, he did think it would "achieve conclusion."

"You know, honestly, I think this two-week business is not the way to go," Conrad said. "I think there should be a longer-term agreement, hopefully through the end of the year. And the big problem is we are focusing on just a small part of the budget. Only 12 percent of the budget is being considered for reduction."

"Yes, it is acceptable to me to have $4 billion in savings in a two-week package, sure," he continued. "The makeup of that, you know, is up for discussion and negotiation. That negotiation is ongoing. And I'm confident we'll achieve conclusion on that."

The main sticking point for Senate Democrats may be their desire to suggest that the measure cover one month, not two weeks -- giving them more time to work out a longer term deal, and lessening the prospects for a series of two week funding agreements.

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