Boehner & McConnell’s Secret Plan to Avert a Shutdown

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House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell have been working behind the scenes to draft a two-week stopgap measure to avert a government shutdown that would include $4 billion in immediate cuts, according to House and Senate GOP aides.

The House would move first – the Rules Committee could meet as early as Monday. Boehner is hoping to pass the bill by Wednesday. Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid have been in discussions but if a deal is not reached ahead of time Senate Republicans would offer Boehner’s proposal as a substitute to Reid’s bill. The cuts will include reductions that President Obama has suggested and other non-controversial items in the hopes of luring support from moderate Senate Democrats who are facing tough reelections. No details were immediately available on what cuts Boehner and McConnell are looking at. “Senator Reid’s position that they will force a government shutdown rather than cut one penny in spending is indefensible – and it will be very hard for them to oppose a reasonable short-term funding measure that will cut spending,” says a House GOP aide. If nothing is done by March 4 the government will shutdown.

Reid’s office said Wednesday he still plans to move forward with a 30-day spending freeze at current levels. The House on Saturday passed a bill funding the government through the end of the fiscal year. But that bill slashes funding by $100 billion — cuts that are not likely to survive the Democratically-controlled Senate. The Senate has proposed cutting $41 billion from Obama’s 2011 request, but that translates into funding the government at roughly the same level it’s at right now. “While Republicans are making a genuine effort to cut spending and debt, Washington Democrats can’t seem to find a single dime of federal spending to cut, insisting on the status quo, even for a short-term spending bill,” McConnell said Wednesday in a statement to TIME. “But keeping bloated spending levels in place is simply unacceptable. So it is our hope that Democrats will join us in a bill that actually reduces Washington spending.” Both sides agree that more time is needed to negotiate a compromise and Boehner has said he will not allow even a temporary extension without some cuts.

The competing bills amount to a game of chicken between the Republican-controlled House and the Democrat-controlled Senate. Both sides claim they are trying to avoid a shutdown, but if one happens both are laying the ground work to blame the other. While both Parties say they want cuts, Republicans want immediate results while Democrats have been taking more of a “scapel” rather than a “meat axe” approach, as Reid put it yesterday on a call with reporters.

The calendar is working against Reid. If he introduces legislation on Monday when the Senate comes back into session the earliest he can get the measure onto the Senate calendar is Wednesday, given the Senate rules. With the likelihood that at least one senator will object to Reid’s bill, it would take until at least Saturday to pass Reid’s measure and government funding expires that Friday.

Republicans are banking on support from Senate Democrats who have publically indicated a willingness to cut above and beyond current spending levels. “My Party, honestly, is in denial about how severe the problem is,” Senator Claire McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat who is up for reelection this cycle said last month. “They think we can just nibble around the edges.” McCaskill has co-authored legislation with Republican Jeff Sessions to cut deeper than what Obama proposed in January. She is one of nine Democratic senators who have said the cuts on the table in the Senate do not go far enough. Democrats hold 23 of the 33 Senate seats up in 2012, some of them in Red states like Montana, Nebraska and West Virginia where cutting the size of government is popular. But it reamins unclear how many Senate Democrats will cross Reid and support McConnell and Boehner, if it comes down to a partisan fight.

Updated at 6:02 p.m.

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