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Lame-duck Congress's first task: avoid a government shutdown

Funding for fiscal year 2011 is set to run out Dec. 3. Will emboldened Republicans be willing to shut down government rather than pass a trillion-dollar budget that expands the deficit?

By Gail Rusell ChaddockStaff writer / November 22, 2010

Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell (2nd l.) gestures during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington on Nov. 16. He has suggested that Republicans are gearing for a fight with President Obama over the budget.

Alex Brandon/AP

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Washington

Of all the unfinished business on Capitol Hill, two issues – taxes and spending – are running up against tough deadlines when a lame-duck Congress returns next week, but the GOP surge at the polls on Nov. 2 is making consensus tougher on both issues.

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To date, Congress has passed none of the 12 annual spending bills that keeps federal agencies functioning. Funding for fiscal year 2011 is set to run out on Dec. 3. In past years, the fix has been a single, massive spending bill, often pumped full of member projects derided as pork-barrel spending – a.k.a. earmarks – to grease passage.

But midterm elections changed both the partisan head count and the politics of spending in the lame-duck session as well.

For one, Republicans in the House and Senate say that voters will not tolerate another $1 trillion-plus spending bill loaded with pork and are threatening to block it. Moreover, the swearing in of Sen.-elect Mark Kirk (R) of Illinois on Nov. 29, will give Senate Republicans 42 seats in the lame-duck session, and Democrats will need to find at least two Republican votes to break a filibuster.

“The voters sent a clear message that the administration needs to come toward us,” said Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell in a speech before the Federalist Society Friday. “If there’s a message out of this election to the Democrats, it’s certainly not to continue what they are doing."

In a surprise move, both House and Senate Republicans last week voted to voluntarily ban earmarks for two years. For Senator McConnell, a longtime defender of earmarking, the decision marked a dramatic shift that he attributed to listening to the voice of the people.

Government shutdown: Who would get the blame?

In order to avoid a government shutdown, Congress may have to accept another short-term measure, called a continuing resolution, leaving the spending bills to the new Republican House and an increased Republican minority in the Senate next year.

For their part, conservative activists and some new GOP lawmakers are not repudiating the prospect of a shutdown.

“Republicans are going to refuse to spend as much as Obama had hoped,” says Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform. And unlike 1995, when President Clinton and a new GOP House majority clashed over a government shutdown, this time Republicans won’t get blamed, he adds.

“If Obama chooses to shut down the government, it’s not going to be a repeat of 1995. Several things are different, including Fox News and the Internet,” he adds. “That means that, unlike the last time, people will get the word out … that this is a fight about spending, and that Obama is shutting the government down to increase spending.”

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