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Leaders Aim For Oct. 31 Exit

Realizing it is highly unlikely Congress will approve the 13 must-have appropriations bills by Oct. 1, Republican leaders have begun talks about passing a continuing resolution to prevent the government from shutting down next month.

The length of the CR has not been determined, but with the Senate scheduled to go into recess Oct. 3 and not return until Oct. 14, the extension is likely to last at least two weeks but not extend beyond three weeks, GOP sources said.

Sources said that Republican leaders are privately aiming for an Oct. 31 adjournment, but it is more likely the adjournment date will slip until Nov. 7. Congress would have to approve at least two CRs under the nascent plan being discussed to avoid a government shutdown.

The first CR would provide the Senate Republican leadership breathing room to negotiate settlements with Democrats on several of the remaining appropriations bills, approve President Bush’s $87 billion wartime supplemental request and continue working on the energy and Medicare prescription drug plan conferences.

“We need to complete all of our work by Oct. 1, and we prefer to get it done prior to that,” said Bob Stevenson, spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.). “But since we have a number of bills remaining, and if they take half the time the [Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education] bill took, we are going to have at least one CR.”

Jay Carson, a spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.), said Democrats would support the passage of a CR, adding that “we are not going to let the government shut down.”

The last time the government shut down was in 1995, when then-Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) and then-President Bill Clinton locked horns in a high-stakes political fight that backfired on Republicans.

Across the Capitol, House Republican leaders will meet today to discuss among other things a work schedule beyond Sept. 30.

“A lot of decisions are going to be made, such as are we going to recess the week the Senate does,” a House GOP source said of the meeting.

The House has approved all 13 of the federal government’s spending bills, but the Senate still needs to pass eight of the measures. There is speculation on both sides of the Capitol that House GOP leaders will allow Members to leave in October and only call them back to town to vote on appropriations conference reports or other outstanding conference reports such as the energy bill or Medicare prescription drug plan.

Another possible scenario, Republican sources said, is for the House to work an abbreviated schedule, upwards of two days a week, until Congress adjourns.

But Jonathan Grella, a spokesman for House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas), said, “Those determinations have yet to be made.”

Still, Grella noted that it has always been the House Republican leadership’s goal “to get most of our big-ticket items finished earlier in the year rather than later” to avoid an end-of-the-year train wreck and sidestep the politics of the Democratic presidential campaigns.

“Presidential politics will start to eclipse us and it will be very difficult to break through message-wise as we get closer to the circus that is the Democratic primary season,” he said. “We didn’t want progress to be held hostage to their angling and posturing.”

Given the fact that the Senate began work in early January to mop up the unfinished business of the 107th Congress and did not adjourn until Nov. 20 last year, a senior GOP aide said, “there is little appetite for prolonging the session into the dark, dank and dreary days of December.”

A top Senate Democratic aide agreed, saying that besides vigorously questioning Bush’s request for $20-plus billion in reconstruction funds for Afghanistan and Iraq in the coming weeks, the Democratic Caucus’ other goal is to see a Medicare prescription drug plan approved this year.

“The bottom line is we are not in control and the only thing standing between us and the door is the Medicare conference,” the staffer said. “An omnibus will be right on the heels, but as long as the Medicare conference remains unresolved we stick around.”

There is a growing sentiment in both political parties that the policy and political differences on several of the appropriations bills could force Congress to craft an omnibus measure this year that would include several of the more controversial spending bills.

“There is no secret here that we are heading toward an omnibus,” said a top Republican staffer.

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