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House Republicans seek to avoid potential government shutdown

U.S. House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) pauses during remarks at a news conference at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, February 25, 2013. REUT
U.S. House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) pauses during remarks at a news conference at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, February 25, 2013. REUT

By David Lawder

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Republicans in the House of Representatives are planning to put up for a vote next week a plan that avoids yet another nasty partisan budget fight, this time a potential shutdown of the government when the current temporary spending law runs out at the end of March.

House Republican lawmakers said their caucus voiced strong support at a meeting on Wednesday for a stop-gap measure that would keep federal agencies and programs funded through the September 30 end of the fiscal year.

It would not stop the $85 billion in automatic spending cuts set to take effect on Friday, but it would keep the government running past March 27 when the current government-wide stop-gap spending bill runs out. The government is running on temporary funding measures because Congress has not passed legislation setting spending for the entire fiscal year.

The approach cedes a key leverage point for Republicans in their demand for deep spending cuts, and represents another effort by the party to avoid the kind of dramatic confrontation that the leadership believes has hurt its standing with the public.

Earlier this year, Republicans decided against mounting fight, as they had done in 2011, over raising the nation's borrowing limit, a move which could have led to a default or downgrading of government debt.

What would happen after September 30 would depend on what progress Congress has made on budget legislation that would finance the government for the following year.

"The support in there is wide and deep," said House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers, who proposed the plan. He added that no Republican lawmakers voiced objections and that he feels "very strongly" it will win House passage next week.

If the Republican-led House follows through, it would require approval by the Democratic-led Senate and President Barack Obama.

Rogers also said he did not anticipate opposition from Democrats. A Senate Democratic aide said that while partly leaders would likely insist on some changes, discussions about the House plan were continuing.

The current stop-gap funding measure expires on March 27, and is one of a series of fiscal deadlines this year that have become flashpoints in Congress' long-running budget battles.

Under Rogers' plan, which has been endorsed by House Republican leaders, most government departments and agencies would see reduced spending levels under a so-called continuing resolution based on last year's budget.

But the proposal makes an effort to provide more spending flexibility to the military by attaching new spending bills for the Defense Department, military construction projects and the Veterans Administration.

While these programs would get the same amount of overall funding that they would if the automatic spending cuts, known as a sequester, stay in place, the legislation would allow more efficient use of military dollars. Rogers said the new defense funding bill would free up some $11 billion for military maintenance work that would otherwise be locked in old, unwanted accounts and projects.

RESIGNED TO MARCH 1 CUTS

But while House Republicans were coalescing around a decision not to risk a potentially disastrous government shutdown, they appeared at loose ends in halting the March 1 sequester.

House Speaker John Boehner repeatedly blamed the president and Senate Democrats this week for failing to come up with a solution for the automatic spending cuts. Meanwhile, he has sought another vote on a plan for alternative spending cuts that the House passed last year.

Inside the closed-door Republican caucus meeting, the mood on sequester was "resigned, and very concerned that the Senate and the president haven't taken any action," said Representative Kristi Noem, a Republican from South Dakota on the House Armed Services Committee.

"But we're preparing ourselves for the fact that the reality is that it looks as though as it's going happen," she said.

(Reporting by David Lawder; editing by Fred Barbash and Jackie Frank)

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