Republicans plot unified position on shutdown crisis

WASHINGTON (AFP) - The US House of Representatives held a rare Saturday session seeking to avoid a looming government shutdown, as Republican leaders struggled to stake out a position palatable to their divided members.

Congress now has just 60 hours to strike a deal that funds government beyond the current fiscal year, which ends Monday at 11.59pm. If members fail, federal agencies will shut their doors and order hundreds of thousands of employees to stay home, while more than a million soldiers will remain on duty without pay.

Lawmakers remain bitterly divided over the path forward. The Republican-led House passed a stopgap budget earlier this month, but amid intense pressure from a die-hard conservative faction, it included a provision that strips funding from President Barack Obama's signature legislative achievement on health care.

The Senate on Friday stripped out the controversial language that defunds so-called Obamacare, sending a clean temporary budget bill, known as a continuing resolution (CR), back to the House.

The chamber has until late Monday to either pass the Senate-approved bill or amend it and send it back to the Democratic-led Senate, a move which would bring government perilously close to shutdown.

House Speaker John Boehner, who has signalled that he wants to add legislative provisions sought by conservatives, gathered his leadership for a crunch meeting on Saturday.

He then takes his plan to the entire Republican caucus, according to an aide, who said Mr Boehner has informed Democrat leaders in the House that a vote on the measure is possible on Saturday.

Meanwhile, the Republican leadership hinted that they are eager to shift the Obamacare fight to the next major fiscal battle, the need to raise the US debt ceiling by mid-October.

"By an overwhelming margin, Americans believe any debt ceiling increase should be coupled with solutions that help solve our debt and grow our economy," Republican conference chair Cathy McMorris-Rodgers said in the party's weekly address.

The Republican plan, she said, contains a raft of reforms, "from approving the Keystone pipeline and fixing our outdated tax code to delaying the president's health care law".

Mr Obama chided Republicans on Friday for their budget brinkmanship, but also warned that while he is prepared to negotiate on ways to reduce spending, "we're not going to do this under the threat of blowing up the entire economy".

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