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No clear path in Congress to avoiding shutdown

Congressional leaders in both parties made clear there is no clear path forward in avoiding a government shutdown in just over 18 days.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., tells reporters that he feels sorry for Republican House Speaker John Boehner because of Tea Party influence.

Lawmakers appear as far apart as ever on reaching an agreement to fund the government past the end of September, after which all but the most essential government services would cease for lack of money. Though Congress has been aware for months of the need to reach an agreement to sustain funding past Sept. 30, consensus has been as elusive as ever.

“Shutting down the government, obviously, is what a majority of the Republican caucus wants to do in the House,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said Thursday.

That comment came after House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, admitted Thursday that he wasn’t sure how the GOP would proceed after the Republican leadership shelved legislation to continue government spending after facing defections in their own ranks.

“There are a million options being discussed by a lot of people. When we have something to discuss, I'll let you know,” Boehner said at his press conference late Thursday morning.

Republican House Speaker John Boehner comments on the upcoming deadline to avoid a government shutdown

The differences between the Democratic Senate’s budgetary preferences and those of Republicans who control the House aren’t the only issues at hand preventing an agreement. Just as important is the internal GOP divide over whether to use the Sept. 30 deadline – or a deadline several weeks later involving the debt ceiling – to force a showdown over President Barack Obama’s signature health care reform law.

Throughout the August congressional recess, a group of hard-lined conservative lawmakers turned against fellow Republicans, demanding that Congress not advance legislation to fund the government unless it also defunded Obamacare. Most Republican leaders have called this tactic unrealistic, since the Democratic-held Senate won’t take up the legislation and Obama is sure to veto such a proposal.

Republicans thought, though, that they had found a way out of the jam. The GOP leadership in the House had crafted a bill to fund the government through Dec. 15 and also defund the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”).  Through a bit of legislative craftwork, the House bill would have allowed the Senate to strip this provision and send the underlying extension of government spending on to the president, without having to take another vote in the House.

But conservatives balked. The Club for Growth called the move a “gimmick,” and staunch conservatives like Rep. Justin Amash, R-Mich., derided it as a “Hocus Pocus” plan. Because no Democrats were expected to support the plan, and because it became clear that Republicans lacked the vote to advance the measure on their own, GOP leaders delayed the vote.

The result is an impasse, and one that threatens a government shutdown – or worse, a default on the national debt – in coming weeks.

Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., voices criticism toward Republican House Speaker John Boehner Thursday, saying Boehner is being influenced by the Tea Party on fiscal policy.

Reid said he warned Boehner this morning in a meeting that “all these things they are trying to do with Obamacare are just a waste of their time.” But the internal politics of House Republicans offer Boehner few good options to move forward without risking reprisal from fellow Republicans, or incur the political damage associated with a shutdown.

Democrats made all but clear on Thursday that they view the prospect of a shutdown as a political winner for them.

“He'll pay a price for it, and the price will come in the elections,” Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said of the specter of a shutdown.

To that end, a CNN/ORC poll released Wednesday found that if there were a government shutdown, 51 percent of Americans would blame Republicans, 33 percent would blame Obama, and 12 percent would blame both.

If nothing else, Republicans seem to have determined that they will have to work through a planned break later this month in order to find a workable solution. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., on Thursday told colleagues to prepare to stay in town for work on the week of Sept. 23 – work, he warned, that could drag into the following weekend.

NBC’s Frank Thorp contributed to this story.

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