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Reporter's Notebook: Capitol Hill Cedes Authority Through Continuing Resolution

Most episodes of Sesame Street are brought to you by a number and a letter of the alphabet.

The same thing happens in Congress.

The number Capitol Hill is sponsoring this week: $700 billion.

The two letters to bring you this week’s edition of Congress: C and R.

CR.

CR is short for "continuing resolution." It is a stopgap spending bill Congress always approves when it hasn’t finished its appropriations work by Sept. 30, the end of the government’s fiscal year. If the spending bills aren’t in place, the government can’t operate. A CR temporarily keeps the government running and if the sides don’t agree to the spending bills, or a CR, the government shuts down.

Two little letters. C. And R.

Grover would be so pleased.

Capitol Hill is abuzz this week as Congress races to finish its work by Friday so lawmakers can jet home to campaign. Just a few weeks ago, everyone thought the CR would be the marquee event at the Capitol. Democrats were through negotiating with President Bush and his spending priorities.

They thought they could kick the spending battles down the road to either Barack Obama or John McCain. Meantime, Republicans wondered openly about thumbing their noses at the CR and the potential of shutting down the government.

It happened in 1995, when the public heaped scorn on then-Speaker Newt Gingrich and the GOP after it closed the government during a fiscal standoff with President Clinton. But this year, Republicans considered forcing a government shutdown, that they believed would tarnish House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the Democratic majority.

It isn't going to happen now. With stocks sinking, oil spiking and Wall Street collapsing, the last thing the economy can handle is Congress dithering.

House GOP Conference Chairman Adam Putnam summed it up last fall when asked about possible government shutdown machinations.

"That’s like trying to break-dance around nitroglycerin," Putnam said.

With these financial circumstances, a shutdown now would be like trying to break dance around a thermonuclear weapon ... inside Three-Mile Island ... with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad manning the control panel.

But that doesn’t mean this year’s CR won’t be as hot as an isotope.

Congress is wrestling to forge a financial emergency plan to salvage Wall Street and calm the markets. The CR is a "must-pass" measure. And by the end of the week, the CR could be the only legislation available to Congress to Velcro the rescue package onto. A top leadership aide said late in the day Monday that "anything was possible."

The problem is that lawmakers from both sides of the aisle are dubious about the financial emergency idea. The $700 billion price tag is staggering. And bolstered government control defeats any semblance of a free-market economy the U.S. prides itself on.

Details and rumors about the package flitted around the Capitol all day.

But in the early evening, Senate Banking Committee Chairman Chris Dodd suggested that it was inevitable that the financial emergency bill would probably be welded into the CR.

Just minutes before Dodd’s proclamation, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer said if he would not consider glomming the rescue package into the CR. A top Republican leadership aide confided that even loyal Democrats would view such a maneuver as too political.

House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charlie Rangel could offer little guidance on adding the plan to the CR.

The fact that Congress hadn’t yet spun a deal spurred another spate of uneasiness on Wall Street. Investors took another bath as the Dow dipped nearly 400 points and oil skyrocketed. House Financial Services Committee Chairman Barney Frank conceded late in the day that Congress now had too much skin in the game not to accomplish something.

"By the declaration that they (the administration) made, by sending this proposal, I think we have to recognize the reality that we don’t have a choice now of debating whether this is a good or bad thing," Frank said.

Meantime, Republicans sparred among themselves over the bill, with the Republican Study Committee, the most-conservative bloc of GOP lawmakers in the House, fretting aloud over the size of the package.

Struggling to shore up its base, the White House Tuesday executed the unorthodox move of dispatching Vice President Dick Cheney, Chief of Staff Josh Bolten and National Economic Council Director Keith Hennessey to a meeting of House Republicans.

So, with so much dissonance, the CR might be the only legislative mechanism available to move any rescue bill. And Democrats and Republicans alike might have to hold their noses as they vote for it just to keep Wall Street from liquefying before their very eyes.

A few weekends ago, I stopped by the Jim Henson exhibit at the Smithsonian Institution’s International Gallery.

During some videotaped commentary about the Muppets Henson’s longtime collaborator Frank Oz remarked that if Henson didn’t know how to end a skit, he’d do one of two things: one Muppet would eat the other one. Or, one Muppet would blow the other one up.

That’s sort of how it feels now on Capitol Hill. Nobody knows how to end this skit. Some lawmakers are going to eat the others. Or, one group of lawmakers is going to blow another group up.

And you can thank the letters C and R for bringing you this week of the United States Congress.

Chad Pergram covers Congress for FOX News. He’s the winner of an Edward R. Murrow Award and the Joan Barone Award for his reporting on Capitol Hill.