By Jordain Carney and Sarah Ferris - 09-07-16 19:16 PM EDT
Senate Republicans are working on a short-term measure that would fund the government until Dec. 9, putting them on a collision course with House conservatives who want to avoid a lame-duck spending bill.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) announced the move Wednesday, saying he hoped to bring the funding bill up for a vote as soon as next week.
"We're going to work toward the Dec. 9 date at last year's levels," he told reporters during his weekly press conference. "We're looking for a way forward."
McConnell added that he's already started talks with Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and the White House, who have pledged to block any stopgap funding measure, called a continuing resolution, that stretches into 2017.
The comments highlight McConnell's desire to get his conference out of Washington and back to the campaign trail as soon as possible.
"I think they want out of here even quicker than we do," said Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), a member of both the House Budget and Appropriations committees. "It wouldn't be the first time the Senate decided to sort of jam the House."
Senate Republicans are defending 24 seats, and McConnell is in great danger of being demoted to minority leader in the next Congress. That has created an incentive to finish work on a funding bill quickly so that vulnerable senators can return to their home states to campaign.
Conservatives in the House, many of them representing safe districts, are much less worried about their elections or the GOP's large majority in the lower chamber.
They do fear that setting up a vote after the elections on funding the government would increase the chances that a lame-duck Congress would sign off on a spending bill that would bust the budget.
Squeezing the spending bill through the Senate first could help provide leverage to pressure the conservative House Freedom Caucus to back a shorter bill despite vocal objections over the last few weeks.
Under such a scenario, Cole said, the House could "either find a way to get to where they're at, or we'll do something different and they'll have to come back."
Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) has scheduled a special meeting on Friday for House Republicans to discuss a path forward on funding the government, though no final decisions are expected this week.
Lawmakers have until the end of this month to agree to a funding measure that keeps the federal government operating.
Conservatives on Wednesday showed few signs that they would go down without a fight. Their demands don't stop at wanting a continuing resolution that extends into next year.
Rep. Brian Babin (R-Texas) is circulating a letter to GOP leadership asking that the spending measure include language cracking down on the acceptance of refugees from Syria, the Middle East and North Africa. The provision would be a deal killer for Senate Democrats, who have blocked similar legislation.
McConnell and Ryan are typically in close communication on funding measures.
McConnell on Wednesday said that he's spoken to GOP leadership but emphasized the chambers are "separate bodies."
"We think the Senate ought to be able to resolve the issues that confront us and go forward," he added.
Further complicating the talks are entrenched fights over money to combat the Zika virus and Planned Parenthood funding.
Democrats in the Senate on Tuesday blocked $1.1 billion in funding to fight Zika that would have prevented clinics in Puerto Rico run by Planned Parenthood from accessing the money.
How to resolve the stalemate is currently a part of the discussions between McConnell, Senate Democrats and the White House. Reid warned Wednesday that he wants a "clean" bill related to Zika.
"We want to make sure ... that it doesn't have a lot of Freedom Caucus bells and whistles in it," he said, adding he expects the spending measure and Zika funds to come up in the Senate next week.
In the meantime, Democrats are laying out their own "simple rules" for the government funding bill, including making sure that defense and nondefense spending are treated equitably and there no "vexatious riders."
"If they think they can shove poison pill riders down our throats, we just won't do it," said Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin, the Senate's No. 2 Democrat.
A growing number of Senate Republicans are calling for the Planned Parenthood language to be removed from the Zika bill.
House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) said Wednesday that attaching the Zika funding bill to the short-term spending legislation could actually help the package pass, because it could draw support from some conservatives who might otherwise oppose it.
Even hard-line conservatives in the House such as Reps. Dave Brat (R-Va.) and Trent Franks (R-Ariz.) said Wednesday they could be on board with the idea.
"I supported the House version of the Zika bill," Franks said. "So it wouldn't - in and of itself - be a reservation for me."