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Tea party lawmakers pave way to deal, averting a government shutdown

Government funding was set to run out on Sept. 30, but congressional leaders on Tuesday said they reached a deal to extend it for six months at current levels. Lawmakers with tea party leanings led the way, to prevent possibility of a preelection government shutdown.

Often-feuding congressional leaders have reached a deal to extend funding for government operations when the fiscal year runs out on Sept. 30.

If Congress’s long-running debates over spending and taxes are any indication, a debate over how much government spending to authorize come Oct. 1 could have been a bloody showdown just weeks before the election.

Instead, Congress plans to approve a six-month authorization of current funding levels (known as a “continuing resolution,” or CR) when lawmakers return from their August recess in the second week of September.

In a surprise turn of events, Congress’s most conservative lawmakers are the ones who paved the way to the deal. They were led by Sen. Jim DeMint (R) of South Carolina and a cohort of House lawmakers with sparkling records on conservative scorecards grading votes on economic issues.

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Senator DeMint sent a letter, which contained two surprises, to Republican leaders on both ends of Capitol Hill. First, about 20 of the GOP’s most conservative lawmakers agreed to use a continuing resolution to address the situation, even though they have frequently derided that tool as one that allows Congress to shirk its budgeting responsibilities. (Many more lawmakers voiced general support for the move after the letter was published.)

Second, the tea-party-aligned lawmakers said they would be willing to accept funding at an annual level of $1.047 trillion, the amount stipulated by last summer’s Budget Control Act. Conservatives had interpreted that level of funding as a ceiling. Rep. Paul Ryan (R) of Wisconsin, chairman of the House Budget Committee, had put forward a budget of $1.029 trillion, and the most conservative budget, offered by the Republican Study Committee, was $958 billion.

“We have said, as conservatives, we’ll swallow hard and accept that number as long as it’s a six-month CR — and it doesn’t have a lot of other monkey business attached to it,” said Rep. Jeff Duncan (R) of South Carolina.

Early signs from congressional leaders are that there will not be monkey business.

“It’ll provide stability for the coming months,” Senate majority leader Harry Reid (D) of Nevadasaid Tuesday. “It’ll be free of [unrelated] riders.”

So, did congressional conservatives all of a sudden get religion about spending? Hardly. Rather, they took a long, hard look at what a lame-duck, post-election session of Congress might look like and decided it might paint them into this corner: accept tax increases or shut down the government. 

“That’s how we got to a $16 trillion debt — by having crisis after crisis after crisis,” said Rep. Raul Labrador (R) of Idaho, speaking two weeks ago while summarizing the conservative message on the six-month CR proposal. “We know we have an election coming, we know that the Democratswant to take us off the fiscal cliff so they can get their tax increases…. We need to get off the table the fact that we’re going to run out of [government] funding, and the best way to do that is have a six-month continuing resolution to fund government.”

Conservatives could tout, too, the fact that the six-month extension will push spending decisions into the start of what they hope will be GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney’s first term in theOval Office

Barring any surprises when the resolution is drafted over the next month, a conservative groundswell will be responsible for a CR that’s longer than anyone on Capitol Hill was discussing only weeks ago — and at a higher funding level than anyone expected.

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The White House said Tuesday it is on board with the deal. Press secretary Jay Carney called the accord a “welcome development,” saying, “we are encouraged that both sides have agreed to resolve this issue without delay.” 

The deal puts a fight over government funding “out of the way,” Senator Reid said, “and that’s very important.”