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Democrats Search for CR Endgame

Senate Democrats appear poised to swallow the House GOP’s $4 billion spending cut package to avert a government shutdown this week but are trying to figure out how to avoid getting squeezed again in two weeks.

“We don’t want to be in the same position on March 18,” a Senate Democratic aide said, referring to the expiration date of the proposed two-week continuing resolution.

Several Democratic Senators on Monday lamented the practical effects of not having a longer-term CR while they hash out fiscal 2011 spending.

“The question is not so much this CR, but how many. We are certainly hearing from the Department of Defense that they can’t operate every week or two weeks” with continued short-term measures, Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) said.

Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) said she is pushing to have the two-week CR proposed by House Republicans extended to one month in order to give lawmakers more time to reach a longer-term deal.

“We cannot run government on monthly installments,” she said.

The GOP maneuver last week — crafting a relatively small package of cuts that targeted earmarks and programs President Barack Obama proposed eliminating in his budget blueprint — put Senate Democrats in an untenable position. They either have to reject the small package of cuts or risk taking the blame for shutting down the government.

Senate Democratic leaders have been warming to the House GOP’s bill while trying to preserve leverage for a longer-term deal.

“I think you’ll see an emerging sentiment that we’re not doing two-week CRs ad infinitum,” another Senate Democratic aide said. “We’re serious about cuts and getting spending and the deficit under control, but we’re not going to have those cuts dictated to us by House Republicans.”

Speaker John Boehner outlined a strategy of forcing through smaller packages of cuts.

“If they won’t eat the whole loaf at one time, we’ll make them eat it one slice at a time,” the Ohio Republican said Sunday during remarks at a National Religious Broadcasters convention in Nashville, Tenn.

The two-week bill uses a mixture of earmark cuts and the termination of existing programs — all of which have been endorsed either by Democrats or the White House — to reduce federal spending by $4 billion.

House GOP leaders were careful to include cuts with the backing of Democrats in order to force Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) to support the bill.

So far, that strategy appears to have been successful, and Senate Democrats, at least, have largely been open to the bill.

“We’ve … heard reports now and seen statements” by Reid, Senate Democratic Conference Vice Chairman Charles Schumer (N.Y.) and others “that they may be willing to entertain cuts. I think that’s really good news. We’ve even seen some indications that the Senate may be willing to accept our proposal,” House Majority Leader Eric Cantor said Monday.

Noting that Republicans have crafted their bill around Democratic proposals, the Virginia Republican argued, “We don’t see any reason in the world why the Senate won’t accept that.”

And Cantor dismissed the idea that Republicans would be content with pursuing a handful of multiweek CRs rather than a full six-month measure. “That certainly is not our intention.”

House GOP aides also said there was no intention of pursuing a series of short-term bills and said they hope Senate Democrats’ decision to back the bill will help box them in to coming to the table on a longer CR that makes significant cuts.

“They can’t exactly say, ‘Well we agreed to spending cuts last week but now we think it’s unreasonable,’” a senior House GOP leadership aide said.

The two-week bill doesn’t provide a clear endgame. If Democrats and Republicans can’t bridge their $61 billion gap, the GOP could just whack another slice in return for another two weeks — in effect forcing Democrats to pay a ransom in cuts to avoid a shutdown.

Senate Democrats have yet to decide when to unveil their own proposal for the full year, although Reid has said Appropriations Chairman Daniel Inouye (Hawaii) is writing one.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said this week’s action gives Democrats “an opportunity to show they’ve gotten the message” on cutting spending.

Also on Monday, the White House signaled support for House Republicans’ two-week CR but warned Congress against making a habit of it.

“We are pleased that there seems to be some progress and that we are moving in the right direction,” White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said during a briefing. But “repeated cycles of debate on CRs” are not helpful, he added.

Democrats would like Obama to get more involved — the way President Bill Clinton was in the 1995 showdown with Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.).

For now, Hill aides in both parties said, the administration is playing next to no role in talks, other than being kept in the loop on developments by Reid.

Most House Democrats are expected to oppose the short-term deal even if Senate Democrats accept it, Republican and Democratic leadership aides said. Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) and Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (Md.) have done a good job of keeping their colleagues together in the first few weeks of the session, and no Democrats voted for the larger $61 billion package of cuts last month.

While Senate Democrats began showing cracks in their discipline immediately following the release of the two-week bill, House Democrats have mostly remained mum.

According to aides in both parties, it remains unclear whether any Democrats will break ranks and vote for the two-week measure, although Republicans said they hope to pick off a handful of Blue Dogs.

Jennifer Bendery contributed to this report.

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