As Holidays Near, Congressional Standoff Continues

The Republican House and Democratic Senate pushed their game of chicken closer to the precipice Thursday, with a government shutdown threat looming at midnight Friday. Both maneuvered to be able to blame the other — should things fall apart and the government actually runs out of money to operate. NPR's Tamara Keith joins Lynn Neary with the latest.

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Lynn Neary.

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And I'm Melissa Block. There are about 26 hours left for Congress to avert a partial government shutdown. A temporary spending measure runs out Friday at midnight, so Congress needs to act before then. Tonight, it looks like lawmakers will make their deadline. Congressional negotiators say they've reached a deal to fund the government through next fall. And that's just one of several major items on their agenda before Christmas. NPR's Tamara Keith joins me now for an update. And, Tamara, what are the negotiators saying on Capitol Hill tonight?

NEARY: Well, they're saying that there is a deal. This is on an omnibus package. This is a package of spending measures that basically cover wide reaches of the federal government. It's a 1,200-page behemoth, more than a trillion dollars. They're filing it tonight, so we'll get the specifics later tonight. But this has been held up for several days. And really, you know, it was due October 1st, so we're way behind schedule, but it looks as though there is a deal that both the House and the Senate will be able to vote on this omnibus spending package, and that the government will not have to shut down.

BLOCK: And what was holding this spending bill up?

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Well, recently, it has become sort of a hostage in the fight over the payroll tax holiday and unemployment extension, some of these other end-of-year issues that were a top priority for the Obama administration. The Obama administration and Senate Democrats held this thing up and wouldn't approve the deal because they were afraid that the House would get its hands on its vote and skip town and not deal with the other measures. Well, there now seems to be a feeling that the House is not planning to skip town, and the clock is ticking, so they really need to get this done.

Also, there had been some little details inside of the spending plan that there were disagreements on, and those apparently have been resolved. And so now, this is ready to go. The hostage has been released.

BLOCK: OK. So you're saying there appears to be agreement on funding the government, this appropriations bill, but still not an agreement, as I understand it, on extending the payroll tax cuts and unemployment benefits. Where do those issues stand tonight?

KEITH: Well, and it's that and the so-called doc fix to get reimbursements for Medicare and just a huge number of other end-of-year measures. And there is not agreement yet on those. They're still negotiating. They're still trying to figure something out. They've definitely moved closer in the last 24 hours or so, but there is no deal. And now, there's even talk of maybe doing a two-month extension to get them through the next two months so that people's unemployment benefits don't get cut off and so that the tax holiday doesn't go away. Will they work out some of the differences?

The biggest problem here is that these things are really expensive, and they need to find a way to pay for it because both sides of the aisle have agreed that they don't want to add this to the deficit, not when we're trying to cut the deficit. And so they're still trying to figure out how they're going to pay for these things. And then there are also things like the Keystone XL pipeline, which House Republicans have attached to this fight and say they want included, which would force the president to make a decision on this controversial pipeline. So that is still being worked on, definitely not done yet.

BLOCK: And Democrats have been insisting that it would be paid for with a tax on the highest level income earners. Is that still a possibility or is that done?

KEITH: No, the millionaire's surtax is now off the table. That's part of what helped them get a little bit closer together in the last 24 hours or so. Democrats agreed that they weren't going to get the votes on that in the Senate. They would need 60 votes to clear this Senate filibuster, and that just wasn't going to happen. So they've given that up. And then Republicans have been sort of softening their stance a little bit on Keystone and some other things. So it seems like there is a great desire to work something out, but they just don't quite have it hammered down.

BLOCK: Sounds like it's going to be a very busy day tomorrow on Capitol Hill, Tamara.

KEITH: Absolutely, it is going to be a busy day. And we're all trying to figure out if we're also going to be here over the weekend or not.

BLOCK: OK. NPR's Tamara Keith. Thanks so much.

KEITH: Thank you.

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