Congress likely to avoid a shutdown — for now

Congress set to keep government open through Dec. 11.

Congress is expected to narrowly avoid a shutdown of the federal government on Wednesday — hours before the deadline — as lawmakers set up an even more intractable fight over spending at the end of the year.

The Senate is set to approve legislation on Wednesday to keep the government open through Dec. 11 without making cuts to Planned Parenthood that had been sought by conservatives and anti-abortion activists. The House is scheduled to take up that measure later in the day.

There was little celebration on Capitol Hill over the expected outcome because attention quickly shifted to the next deadline in December. Lawmakers of both parties — still assessing the fallout from Rep. John Boehner's decision to relinquish the House speakership — predicted that the next funding fight would be more intense.

"Things are going to get even more difficult in mid-December, when this temporary funding measure expires," said Rep. Chris Van Hollen, the top-ranking Democrat on the House Budget Committee and a candidate for Senate in Maryland. "The problem is the tea party extremists in the Republican caucus are now emboldened."

If Congress takes no action, federal agencies would begin to shutter Thursday morning for the first time since the 16-day shutdown in 2013. The failure to reach an agreement that year caused thousands of federal workers in Maryland to go without pay until a deal was brokered.

The immediate brinkmanship over the stopgap funding measure this time evaporated when Boehner announced he would step down at the end of October. The Ohio Republican, no longer bound by the demands of conservatives in his caucus, is expected to coble together a majority to pass the funding bill from centrist Republicans and Democrats.

But the pressure on Boehner to answer to warring factions within his party is certain to confront his successor as well. And the next speaker won't have the luxury of resigning in December to placate conservatives over government spending or a looming deadline to raise the debt ceiling.

House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California is the favorite to replace Boehner.

"I worry about a shutdown in December, yes," said Rep. Steny Hoyer, the Southern Maryland lawmaker and No. 2 Democrat in the House. "The majority leader and I have a good relationship … but I think he has been in the same position that Mr. Boehner has been in."

Rep. Andy Harris, Maryland's only Republican in Congress, said he will "probably" oppose the measure, unless provisions to cut Planned Parenthood funding are included. Conservatives have sought to strip federal funding from the organization following a series of undercover videos in which employees discuss the sale of fetal tissue.

Harris agreed that the fight over government funding would become more intense in December, but suggested that outcome has more to do with a disagreement over spending. Republicans want to maintain caps placed in 2011 by sequestration while Democrats are eager to lift those limits.

"There's a sizable group — I think, probably a majority — of Republicans who don't want the budget caps to be broken," he said.

The outcome of the federal funding fight — and, in particular, spending on Planned Parenthood — has been clear for days, but the issues have nevertheless allowed members of both parties to fire up their political bases.

Van Hollen, a Montgomery County Democrat, introduced a bill this month intended to pressure the GOP to lift the spending caps, and he held a news conference at the Bethesda-based National Institutes of Health to highlight the potential impact of a shutdown. His opponent in the Senate contest, Rep. Donna Edwards of Prince George's County, released a campaign video in which she criticized "the political insiders [who] are playing politics with the government shutdown."

Both Democrats are running to replace Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, who is retiring in 2017.

Other lawmakers in the state, including Reps. Elijah E. Cummings of Baltimore and John Delaney of Montgomery County, touted support for legislation that would ensure federal employees are paid retroactively in the event of a shutdown.

Having dodged the immediate threat of a government shutdown, congressional Republican leaders said Tuesday that they have been looking ahead to talks with President Barack Obama on a long-term budget pact.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said Tuesday that he and Boehner had spoken with Obama recently and that he expects more talks to get underway soon.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

john.fritze@baltsun.com

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