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GOP conservatives scramble to take government shutdown off the table

In a shift from last summer's debt-ceiling standoff, tea party conservatives now aim to be seen as avoiding a government shutdown, even if it means accepting a higher level of FY 2013 spending.

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Sen. Jim DeMint (R) of South Carolina is interviewed outside the Senate chamber on July 12.

Jacquelyn Martin/AP

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If there’s going to be a government shutdown fight, it won’t be Congress’s most conservative members leading the charge.

In a bid to avoid a potential government shutdown, several of the House’s most conservative Republicans say they would be willing to go along with a six-month extension of government funding, which is currently set to run out at the end of September, at levels they’ve voted against in the past.

“This idea is going to come from the conservatives because if you listen to the Democrats, they say, ‘It’s the tea party conservatives who want us to get to a government shutdown.’ We don’t want that and we’re going to do everything we can to prove it,” said Rep. Raul Labrador (R) of Idaho at a talk with reporters on Thursday.

While no Democrats have lobbed this charge yet, it may not be long in coming, considering that many of the Republicans who are now promoting the six-month extension plan have previously all but thrown themselves in front of the tank treads of must-pass measures with massive financial import (think the 2011 debt-ceiling increase and stopgap spending to keep government funded).

Tea party conservatives have insisted America simply can’t afford the levels of spending being authorized by Congress – and have been willing to take the country to the point of default or shutdown to defend that view.

So why are they on board with the move now?

The idea is spearheaded by Sens. Jim DeMint (R) of South Carolina, the most prominent tea party figure in Congress, and Lindsey Graham (R), South Carolina's senior senator. It was laid out in a letter signed by 20 Republicans to House and Senate GOP leaders on Wednesday. But support for the move is wider than the initial signatories: Even Rep. Justin Amash (R) of Michigan, who voted against the Republican budget proposal in March because he said it cut too little from government spending, said he would vote in favor.

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The thinking, as defined by supporter Rep. Jeff Duncan (R) of South Carolina, is that Republicans should pass what’s known as a continuing resolution, or “CR,” to extend government spending at an annual $1.047 trillion for at least six months.

That’s a controversial figure for Congress’s most conservative members. It’s the highest spending allowed under the Budget Control Act, the compromise legislation that ended last summer’s debt-ceiling fight. That legislation increased America’s loan limit in exchange for imposing spending caps on the next 10 years of federal budgets and creating the “sequester” to slash government spending even further if Congress couldn’t agree to deeper cuts.

House conservatives have fought to drive government expenditures below that $1.047 trillion level. The budget proposed by House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan (R) of Wisconsin took an $18 billion bite out of that figure. A budget pushed by the Republican Study Committee, the group that is both the House GOP’s largest and most conservative, favored a spending cap some $116 billion lower.

“This is the number that we all have voted against until now,” said Representative Labrador. “We’re saying that in order to prevent a crisis, we’re willing to vote for that $1.047 [trillion] number.... It’s going to be interesting to see how Democrats deal with that.”

But averting a crisis isn’t the only calculation: They’re also trying to shrewdly position their caucus for a lame-duck session. They’ll give up a lower spending level for an extension of funding into 2013 because they fear Democrats will use a looming government shutdown as leverage toward a lame-duck poison pill: a massive piece of legislation keeping the government open but allowing some of the Bush tax cuts to expire.

“What we see coming is [Democrats will] want a CR that will expire Nov. 30, 1st of December, so they’ll come back and try to hold the government shutdown over our heads to get a tax on the wealthiest of Americans who make more than $250,000 a year,” for example, Representative Duncan, a freshman member, said.

What’s unclear is whether leadership in either the House or Senate will take up the idea. "Given Senate Democrats’ inexcusable failure to pass a budget or a single Appropriations bill, at some point we’ll have to deal with the consequences of their inaction – but no decisions have been made yet on how to do that," said Michael Steel, spokesman for Speaker John Boehner (R), in an e-mail.

House minority leader Nancy Pelosi was noncommittal. “Leader Pelosi supports the House getting its work done, not more kicking of the can down the road over and over again,” said Pelosi spokesman Drew Hammill in an e-mail.

A spokesman for Senate majority leader Harry Reid (D) did not return request for comment.

In addition, it’s unclear how a continuing resolution would affect the “fiscal cliff,” some $600 billion in higher taxes and spending cuts set to slam the American economy on Jan. 1. Lawmakers need to deal with the expiration of the Bush tax cuts, $109 billion in spending cuts mandated by the sequester, the end of extended unemployment benefits, and a patch to the alternative minimum tax, among other issues.

Republicans who back the new plan have some hope that passing a CR could alleviate the need for a lame-duck session at all. That’s important to them because lame ducks have historically been inhospitable to conservative interests: Their vital issues – such as the 2010 extension of the Bush tax cuts – are lumped together with other, less palatable measures – such as extended unemployment benefits – and offered in take-it-or-leave-it fashion. 

Concerning the sequester and tax cuts, they say, they’ll deal with that in January – free from the threat of a government shutdown.
 
An extension would get America past the November elections, stopping a lame-duck session and helping Congress avoid “playing all the gimmicks that have shortchanged Americans every time this happens,” said Rep. Jeff Landry (R) of Louisiana.

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