'Tis the season of important dates -- Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Christmas, New Year's, government shutdown ...
Yes, it's that time of year -- again. Just two months after the last partial government shutdown ended, lawmakers are once again struggling to meet the deadline for funding the government.
As part of the short-term agreement struck in mid-October, Congress gave itself until Jan. 15 to pass a budget, and until Dec. 13 to reach a tentative deal at the committee level. It's Dec. 4, and despite weeks of talks the budget negotiations have only crept forward. And Congress really only has five more days this month to do anything. While the House is in session, the Senate doesn't return until next week -- and Speaker John Boehner plans to adjourn the House for holiday recess next Friday.
"The speaker is very serious about us being out of here on the 13th," House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., said.
There may be little stomach on Capitol Hill for another shutdown showdown. The last 16-day standoff helped drive public approval of Congress to historic lows. And while President Obama took heat for refusing to negotiate, Republican leaders emerged from the battle bruised -- and with little to show for it, having failed to win any major delay in ObamaCare.
But no bill is yet on the table that could avert one.
This time around, the debate centers around the spending levels for 2014, and the so-called sequester. Republicans want to hold down spending, while Democrats want to boost that number.
With so little time to cut a deal, some lawmakers are talking about passing another stopgap spending bill to buy more time to negotiate. A letter, obtained Wednesday by Fox News, from 18 House Republicans to House leadership encouraged them to pass such an interim spending bill.
But not everyone's on board.
House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers, R-Ky., is adamant that he does not want another stopgap spending bill to fund the government past Jan. 15.
"I want to see that pressure remains to get a number," Rogers said Tuesday.
There are also questions about whether the House could possibly get the votes to pass such a bill.
A lot of conservatives simply don't like the idea of another stopgap measure, known in Washington as a continuing resolution, or CR. And on the other side of the aisle, Democrats are concerned that a CR would keep spending too low. House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer said Tuesday he wouldn't accept a CR that renews the budget figure at $967 billion, keeping the sequester in place.
Amid the debate over whether to go big or small in the next budget bill, top negotiators returned to Washington this week for another round of talks. Leading the effort are Senate Budget Committee Chairwoman Patty Murray, D-Wash., and House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis.
The panel of negotiators has given off mixed signals about how far along they might be.
"If you define success by taking things off the table, then we're getting success," said the Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., House Democrats' top negotiator. "The negotiations work by subtraction."
While lawmakers are negotiating this week, several senior leadership aides suggest that the real deadline is Dec. 9 -- to allow for the mechanics of actually putting the plan together and rounding up the votes.
Even if the panel led by Murray and Ryan is still talking, it's possible the House could move ahead on a short-term bill, if only to apply pressure on the Senate.
House GOP sources told Fox News on Wednesday that Ryan is "optimistic" that the ongoing talks could produce a small deal. But these sources said if there is no agreement by Dec. 13, the House will pass a short-term CR to keep funding the government at the $967 billion level as required by law.
A Ryan spokesman said the congressman "is committed to finding common ground. He hopes both parties can work together to cut spending in a smarter way."
A senior Democratic Senate leadership source close to the ongoing budget talks told Fox News that while there's no deal yet and things could fall apart, "there is lots of reason to believe we're on a good path."
The most likely scenario would see a deal announced sometime between Friday and Tuesday. It would not have to be voted on by the budget conference panel itself and will likely enjoy the advance blessing of Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, meaning it could proceed directly to the respective floors.
The package being crafted would be designed to spare the Pentagon -- but also education and medical research programs dear to Democrats -- from the sequester cuts looming as a result of the 2011 Budget Control Act. The most likely path is a mix of a sell-off of government assets, a hike in selected government fees, and "smart savings" achieved through cuts in other areas. Murray is still pushing for the closure of some tax loopholes, but is said to understand that that is unlikely.
Democrats also "remain hopeful" about including in the package an extension of unemployment insurance, but that, too, is a long shot. The Democratic source also said a deal could include "more deficit reduction above and beyond sequester replacement."
Without any agreement by Jan. 15, another partial shutdown would begin. Congress is also under pressure to pass several other items, including a defense bill and sprawling farm bill. On the latter, House and Senate negotiators are trying to iron out the differences between two competing versions of a package that would reform and extend farm subsidies.
Boehner said Tuesday that he wants the bill completed but "we can't get Senate Democrats to say yes."
Fox News' Chad Pergram, Mike Emanuel and James Rosen contributed to this report.