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Steny Hoyer: Neither party is spoiling for a fight over a government shutdown

The end of the fiscal year is typically a flash point for partisan battles, but not with a 'fiscal cliff' looming after November elections. Even GOP conservatives are accepting higher spending levels, rather than risk a government shutdown.

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House minority whip Steny Hoyer (D) of Maryland speaks at a Monitor-hosted breakfast for reporters on July 25 in Washington, D.C.

Michael Bonfigli/The Christian Science Monitor

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America, do not worry: Congressional leaders say they don’t want to shut the government down come Sept. 30, when the fiscal year expires. The question is, however, how exactly they’re going to keep the doors open with only six working days in September, the month after Congress’s month-long August recess.

“We have a very short time to do it,” said House minority whip Steny Hoyer (D) of Maryland at a breakfast sponsored by The Christian Science Monitor on Wednesday. Hoyer said, referring to government funding, “I think the political judgment is going to be, ‘Let’s not fight about this.’ "

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With much attention focused on the year-end fiscal cliff and Congress enveloped in electric election-year debates over taxes, regulation, and health care, a potential showdown over government funding has gone largely under the radar.

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That’s in part because Republican leaders in the House – the seat of discontent about previous extensions of government funding – say they are going to keep the lights on.

“Our goal would be to make sure the government is funded and any political talk of a government shutdown is put to rest,” House Speaker John Boehner (R) of Ohio told reporters on Tuesday.

In fact, the GOP is willing to swallow two bitter pills to make sure the nation doesn’t see a government shutdown fight. First is continuing funding to implement President Obama’s health-care reform legislation, something more than 120 GOP House members signed a letter to the speaker opposing. Second is continuing government discretionary spending at an annual rate of $1.047 trillion, the level stipulated by last summer’s Budget Control Act. The House’s most conservative members have pushed for an annual rate of $958 billion, while the plan by House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan (R) of Wisconsin called for annual discretionary outlays of $1.029 trillion.

That second pill is one that could be expected to stick in the craw of some of the most conservative members of Congress, who dug in their heels on, among other issues, raising the national debt ceiling in order to extract lower government spending.

But several dozen members in both chambers have signed on to a push by Sen. Jim DeMint (R) of South Carolina, among others, to vote for a six-month extension of current government funding in a process known as a “continuing resolution,” or CR, partly to avoid political blowback from a government shutdown fight.

In an election year, one might expect Democrats to pursue anything that could put the heat to the GOP – and vice versa. But Democrats, who ripped the GOP for holding up government funding in the past, are willing to deal.

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“Certainty is good for the economy, good for the country, good for the federal agencies,” Mr. Hoyer said. “I don’t necessarily have a preference, although I would certainly not be opposed to a six-month [CR]."

“They’re making a political judgment, which I think is correct, that if they proceed to shut down government in September, it will hurt them badly at the polls,” he added. “They’ve made a pragmatic judgment, not a philosophical or fiscal one.”

Hoyer pointed out that Congress has, effectively, six working days in the entire month of September. Capitol Hill is out both the first and last weeks of the month on recess, and that leaves precious little time for jamming through anything except for the simplest extension of government funding.

But how long will the extension be? Many on Capitol Hill expected September’s funding extension would be some 90 days, pushing government funding into the lame-duck session after the November election. That would lump it in with weighty fiscal decisions on more than $600 billion in higher taxes and lower spending that Congress is expected to deal with (even if only to punt those issues into 2013).

But congressional conservatives’ move to support a six-month extension shook that calculus somewhat.
What will happen in September? It’s unclear – but in a year of high partisan rancor, the parties seem, for once, to be avoiding a potential fight.