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House GOP Appropriators in a Budget Conference Pickle

Democrats on both sides of the Capitol wonder if House Republicans would be able to pass a one-year continuing resolution that holds spending at the sequester levels of $967 billion, a number being pushed by hard-line conservatives who count among them Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.

But on Wednesday, House GOP appropriators threw cold water on those speculations, signaling that they’d be willing to vote for a short-term funding measure at that level if they had to — though not happily.

“If we’re forced to, I guess,” was how Rep. Tom Latham, R-Iowa, the chairman of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, put it. “It’s going to be very difficult to pass bills at that level.”

“Yeah we could do it,” budget conference committee member and senior appropriator Tom Cole, R-Okla., agreed. “But the question is, do you want a deal that allows us to return to regular order?”

The appropriators are hoping that the budget conference committee will deliver a more workable top-line number well in advance of the Dec. 13 deadline to come up with a budget deal. Doing so would help them return to “regular order” and write 12 appropriations bills that could actually pass.

But if the budget conference can’t provide that, most House Republican appropriators say they would do what is needed to avoid another shutdown — even if that means spending levels that have vexed them for months.

“I don’t think this is the time to be playing around with our federal government, so we have to make a decision, and sometimes you have to make a decision that you don’t like,” said House Republican appropriator Steve Womack, R-Ark.

A senior Senate Democratic aide, though, noted the trouble that Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, has had getting domestic spending bills through the chamber at even the lower, post-sequester levels. Making things more complicated for Republicans, the fiscal 2014 sequester would fall disproportionately on defense programs, with the Defense Department facing a $20 billion cut absent any changes.

An effort to break down the statutory firewall between security and nonsecurity spending, in effect allowing for greater spending on defense at the expense of domestic agencies such as the National Institutes of Health, would face even longer odds, the aide suggested.

McConnell visited the House Republican Conference on Tuesday morning, imploring his House counterparts to hang tough on the sequester’s spending level. That visit set off speculation as to whether House Republicans would be able to move a CR at the $967 billion level.

On Wednesday, asked whether he thought McConnell was implying that lawmakers should abandon their hopes of a deal with the budget conferees, House Appropriations Chairman Harold Rogers, R-Ky., who desperately wants a higher top-line number, said, “That was sort of what he said, yeah.”

And then there’s always hope that the Budget Conference Committee comes through in the end.

“Paul Ryan tells me he’s a little bit optimistic,” Rogers said of the House Budget Chairman.

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