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What Congress has to do to avert a late-March government shutdown

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“This bill has to focus on funding levels,” Senator Mikulski told reporters just outside the Senate chamber, deflecting a question about whether she would add to her forthcoming legislation provisions such as unfreezing government pay, favored by President Obama. “If we keep our focus on the fact that this is not to deal with all the pent-up demand [for various policy additions and instead] keep it as simple, as clear, and as straightforward as we can,” the measure will succeed, she said.

What could muddy the waters? In the House, a crew of conservative Republicans led by Rep. Tim Huelskamp (R) of Kansas sent a letter to GOP leaders asking for the House government funding bill to defund parts of Mr. Obama’s health-care reform law. In the Senate, Democratic lawmakers are queasy about acquiescing to indiscriminate cuts in social programs and domestic priorities, Mikulski said.

Both Mikulski and Rogers have opted to accept to the reality of the sequester by writing legislation that does not alter the amount of cuts to come.

Instead, leaders in both chambers (which include Senate majority leader Harry Reid (D) and Senate Republicans including Mr. McConnell and the Appropriations Committee's Richard Shelby of Alabama) are discussing how much money can be moved around within the budgets of the Pentagon, veterans affairs, border security, government research, and social programs to mitigate the worst of the sequester cuts.

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