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Another fight over congressional spending?

This week, Congress will have its first substantial policy argument since the members came back from recess. And what would that be? Another fight over how to continue to fund the federal government.

Here are the parameters of the debate in layman’s terms, as this one is especially confusing (even after the summer's debt-ceiling debate).

1. The money

On Sept. 30, 2011, Fiscal Year 2011 funds will run out. This is the agreement that was reached in March during the near government shutdown. However, unlike in March when the government came within 45 minutes of a shutdown over a funding fight, the general sentiment on Capitol Hill is that neither side wants to even come close to a government shutdown -- since Congress is polling so low. In fact, as House Majority Leader Eric Cantor said today, “Nobody is intending for a government shutdown, the country has had enough of it.”

Part of the debt limit deal was that when the Fiscal Year 2011 ended on Sept. 30, the funding number for Fiscal Year 2012 would be $1.043 trillion. There's no debate on that point. So unlike last March, when both sides wanted to adjust the overall funding number, everyone agrees on $1.043 trillion. This time, however, the debate will be over where the money is spent.

Even on the last point, there’s widespread agreement on the majority of the continuation of funds. But where there's disagreement is on the subject of FEMA and emergency disaster-relief funding.

2. FEMA

Last week, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid passed a stand-alone FEMA/disaster relief funding bill that included $6.1 billion in funds. That bill got support from 10 GOP senators. In an effort to pit House GOPers against Senate GOPers, Reid is going to attach an amendment to the House GOP government funding bill that would make the FEMA/disaster relief funds equal to $6.1 billion and make the Senate vote on it. The House bill appropriates $2.65 billion for FEMA, which is far below Obama’s request of $5.1 billion.

The House GOP says there are giving more than Obama requested in 2011, and that the states themselves have not finished the task of appropriately asking for how much money is needed for disaster relief.

Today, House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy said there are not enough votes in the House for the Senate-passed FEMA funding bill. So that is an issue that needs to be figured out. Cantor dodged a question on whether or not the House would leave town on Friday no matter what -- even if a deal isn’t reached.

Another issue with Democrats is the GOP insistence on off-setting the billion dollars for FY 2011 with cuts in other places. Currently, the FY 2011 funds would be offset by cuts in a green car vehicle loan guarantee bill that is part of Obama's green jobs initiative which -- according to Republicans -- has a $4 billion surplus that hasn't been used. “

3. So where do they go?

House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer said earlier today that Democrats may vote against the overall funding bill if the House GOP pairs budget cuts with FEMA funding (i.e., what they are doing with the green car money).

Why is that important?

There’s speculation that a decent number of conservative House GOPers are going to vote against the government funding bill no matter what, because they deem it to be too costly and are still mad about the debt limit. There’s also speculation that Democrats -- coupled with enough conservative Republicans -- could lead to enough NO votes on the government funding bill. Hoyer sees leverage in House Dems voting no on the bill because the GOP leadership would need to add more FEMA funds to get their votes and avoid a shutdown.

4. Wednesday

The House expects to pass their government funding bill tomorrow -- to which Reid will add his FEMA money as soon as he gets it. It remains to be seen whether or not Reid can get 60 votes again for his version of FEMA funding. If McConnell can whip that number down, then it’s up to Reid to how the government funding bill will proceed. Either he passes the House funding bill or holds out for more FEMA money.

The bill will fund the government through Nov. 18th, 2011. Before Thanksgiving we’ll have to go through this process again and the hope is that Congress will able to fund the government for the full fiscal year. (Don’t hold your breath.)

5. Deadline

The deadline is this Friday because both chambers expect to be on recess next week. It’s expected that an agreement will be reached as the appetite for any discussion of a shutdown is ZERO. However, there’s a small chance that -- due to procedural issues -- they might need to take until Saturday to figure all of this out. We’ll know a lot more after tomorrow.