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House conservatives show openness to bill averting shutdown

WASHINGTON (AP) — Hard-right House conservatives signaled an openness Wednesday to backing a short-term spending bill this week, raising the odds that Congress will pass the measure and prevent a partial government shutdown on Saturday.

"We've got to get across the finish line on tax reform," Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., leader of the House Freedom Caucus, told reporters after the group met privately early Wednesday. "Any distraction from that is a problem." Asked if a federal shutdown would be a problem, he said, "Of course."

Top Republicans plan to push legislation through Congress this week financing federal agencies through Dec. 22, a period that would allow time for both parties to bargain over long-term budget decisions and other issues. Government closures would begin at midnight Friday night unless lawmakers approve more money.

The roughly 30-member caucus has been trying to win promises of tight budget curbs and other concessions from leaders in exchange for backing the short-term bill. Without support from many of them, Republicans would need votes from Democrats to push the temporary spending measure through the House, and Democrats have not said what they will do.

Meadows and other caucus members said the group had made no final decision to back the short-term spending measure and planned to meet with House leaders later in the day.

"We want to stay focused on tax reform," said Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, another conservative leader.

Top Republicans are adamant about not sparking a federal shutdown that would deal the latest blow to a party that has strained all year to show it can govern effectively. They want voters riveted on the party's near-$1.5 trillion tax bill, the paramount priority for themselves and President Donald Trump.

The conservatives have also wanted GOP leaders to add a third week to the short-term measure. They've said the two-week version makes a bad agreement with Democrats likelier because lawmakers will want to cut a deal and leave town for Christmas.

But few other Republicans in the House or Senate have shown any support for the caucus' three-week proposal.

Republican leaders had already postponed a planned House vote on the temporary spending measure until Thursday, buying time to iron out disputes with conservatives.

There seemed to be little taste by most in either party, at least for now, to shutter agency doors with 2018 midterm elections for control of Congress coming into view. That included the White House, where Trump often revels in conflict and unpredictable tactics that members of his own party consider counterproductive.

"It's always a possibility, but it's certainly not what we hope for," White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders said of a potential shutdown. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., will join GOP leaders for a White House meeting with Trump on Thursday, and Sanders said, "The president hopes to be able to have conversations with them to make sure that doesn't happen."

Democratic votes for any budget measure will be crucial in the Senate, where Republicans by themselves lack the 60 votes needed to approve the legislation.

Knowing that, Democrats are using their leverage to try forcing concessions to boost domestic spending in areas like health care and infrastructure. Hinting that they might back a short-term measure preventing a shutdown, Schumer said approving such a bill "gives us a little more time to do the things we're talking about now."

Democrats also want a bipartisan deal extending a program halted by Trump that lets hundreds of thousands of immigrants who arrived illegally as children stay in the U.S. Highlighting the intricate balancing act GOP leaders face, 34 House Republicans sent a letter to Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., urging him to hold a vote by year's end on renewing those protections.

The fate of the immigration dispute remained unclear. Schumer said bipartisan talks are "moving in the right direction."

But No. 2 Senate GOP leader John Cornyn of Texas said Republicans oppose mixing the immigration issue into the budget talks because it could cause a shutdown that would "jeopardize our national security and other government functions, just in order to help these young adults." He added, "We do want to resolve this, but it's not going to be before the end of this year."

Besides temporarily financing the government, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said the short-term measure would make cash available to several states that are running out of money for the Children's Health Insurance Program. That widely popular program helps provide medical care to more than 8 million children.

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Associated Press writers Darlene Superville and Stephen Ohlemacher contributed to this report.

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