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Congress struggles to avert shutdown as clock ticks

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Congress

WASHINGTON (CNN) — The House is in a holding pattern as Congress struggles to pass a massive spending package ahead of a midnight deadline to avert a government shutdown.

After debating a $1.1 trillion spending package that would fund the government through September, the House went into recess around 2 p.m. and hasn’t returned, signaling that House leaders are scrambling to get votes for the package.

Both Republican and Democratic leaders are facing defections from members of their own party that threaten the passage of the bill.

Dozens of conservative Republicans — as many as 60 — are expected to oppose it because it doesn’t go far enough to combat President Barack Obama’s executive action on immigration. With that many no votes from his own caucus, Boehner will need significant Democratic support to get the bill passed.

But most of the attention is on Democrats, who are taking issue with policy provisions added to the bill addressing campaign finance reform and a key provision of the financial overhaul. President Barack Obama is personally making calls to Democrats, according to a White House official, after he released a statement earlier Thursday backing the spending package.

Meanwhile, White House chief of staff Denis McDonough went to Capitol Hill to discuss the bill in a meeting of House Democrats.

“I’m really looking forward to the discussion. It’s going to be great,” he told reporters.

He’ll likely get a frosty reception from leading congressional Democrats. Nancy Pelosi, the House Democratic leader, voiced her strong opposition to the bill and in a statement, she thanked rank-and-file Democrats who oppose the measure.

“However you decide to vote in the end, I thank those who continue to give us leverage to improve the bill,” said Pelosi.

Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer told CNN that he wanted to hear what his colleagues had to say at the meeting before deciding which way to vote. Hoyer said he had spoken with House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Republicans are waiting for Democrats to jump.

“He said they were waiting to see what we were going to do and I told him I didn’t know,” he said.

California Rep. Maxine Waters, the top Democrat on the House Financial Services Committee, tweeted Thursday afternoon that she was “rallying Democrats in strong opposition to #CRomnibus to stop the Wall Street giveaways and bank bailouts,” with a photo of a meeting of nearly a dozen Democratic lawmakers in her office.

She wrote a letter to colleagues earlier that day saying “if there was ever a time to fight for Democratic values, that time is now.”

Chaos, drama and inertia

The chaos is fitting for a Congress that has already gone through one government shutdown, is perilously close to another, and has been generally characterized by drama and inertia.

It became clear earlier Thursday that Speaker John Boehner would have a tough time getting the package through the House. The chamber barely approved a routine procedural hurdle that sets up a vote on the spending bill later in the day. In an unusual move, Boehner was called upon to provide a key vote so the House could advance to the bill.

A shutdown like the one that happened last year is still unlikely as congressional leaders could come together on a short-term funding bill at the last minute.

However, agencies are making preparations in case Congress does miss the deadline. An Office of Management and Budget official told CNN that the bureau held a conference call this afternoon with government agencies regarding contingency planning for a shutdown.

“We continue to believe that time remains for Congress to pass full-year appropriations for FY 2015, and prevent a government shutdown,” the official said. “However, out of an abundance of caution, we are working with agencies and taking steps to prepare for all contingencies, including a potential lapse in funding.”

Internal battles among Republicans on spending bills are nothing new. Boehner routinely needs Democrats to help him pass funding bills but he’s having a harder time than usual.

“If we don’t finish this today, we’re going to be hear ’til Christmas,” Boehner threatened at a Capitol Hill press conference .

Democratic and Republican leaders brokered a deal on a $1.1 trillion spending package to fund the government through September and head off a government shutdown, but many liberal Democrats are bailing on the package.

Eleventh hour additions of two policy provisions on campaign finance and banking rules have enraged those on the left who now say the bill is a special interest boondoggle.

Gamble for Democrats

It’s a gamble for House Democrats if they join unhappy Republicans and take the spending bill down. If it fails to pass, GOP leaders, who have no appetite for a government shutdown, will move quickly to pass a three-month extension of current funding levels for federal agencies. Those items that Democratic negotiators fought to get included in this legislation — and the GOP policy changes to gun laws and environmental policies they opposed and blocked — will be lost. Democrats would lose any leverage they had on any new deal early next year when both the House and Senate are controlled by Republicans.

“We argued. We debated. We fought,” said Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Maryland, the chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee and one of the chief negotiators on the spending bill. “You know – sometimes you give a little, you take a little.”

Many House Democrats emphasize they were initially concerned with the spending deal because it only funds the Department of Homeland Security through February. DHS includes immigration and border control agencies. A new funding battle for DHS in February would tee up a fight over President Obama’s immigration action early next year.

The other policy provisions added to the spending bill – one increasing the limit rich donors can give to national party committees, and one rolling back a key financial reform barring banks from using taxpayer-insured money for derivatives trades – have made it even more unpalatable.

“At this point I don’t see many Democratic votes at all for a bill that is so antithetical to the middle class,” Rep. Steve Israel, D-New York, told CNN before heading into a meeting on the measure on Thursday morning.

Other Democrats are taking a more pragmatic approach, stressing they are weighing the good with the bad.

“This may be a hold your nose vote,” Rep. Gerry Connolly told reporters, suggesting he could ultimately back the measure and any deal next year would only get worse for the programs he cares about. Connolly’s suburban Virginia district is home to tens of thousands of federal workers who got a small pay raise as part of the deal.

If it passes, the bill will be sent to the Senate, where many of the same divisions exist.

While the debate over the measure will echo the bitter partisan tone that’s been the marker of this Congress, one thing unites virtually everyone on Capitol Hill. They all hate the name of the bill — dubbed the “Cromnibus” for a combination of a “continuing resolution” and an “omnibus” spending bill.

“It sounds like a horrible disease,” said one House Republican. A Democrat called it the “Crummy-bus.”