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Congress still stuck on spending bill despite signs of momentum

Democrats and Republicans each traded bluster Thursday over a stopgap measure to fund the government with no easy solution in sight and just five days remaining before the shutdown deadline.  Though the day had begun with signs of momentum toward a solution, lawmakers – through their rhetoric – offered little in the way of a clear path out of the stalemate.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Senate Democrats speak to the media about whether they think House Republicans have a plan to fund the government.

Senate Democrats attempted to move up a vote to send to the House a “clean” measure to keep the government open past Sept. 30 to Thursday evening, returning the measure to the House. (That means the legislation – known as a “continuing resolution,” or CR – wouldn’t include any additional policy measures and would simply authorize continued spending at existing levels.)

But Sens. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and Mike Lee, R-Utah, objected -- prompting rare bipartisan recrimination from colleagues, who accused the two conservatives of delaying a vote to stage a "show" for supporters on Friday.

“It's not the Republican side that's asking to stall -- we only have two Republican senators who are asking to push this off,” said Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., who said GOP leaders in the House had told him they wished for the Senate to finish its work as quickly as possible.

Democrats eventually acceded, setting up a series of votes on the House-passed bill after noon on Friday.

Hours earlier, House Republicans said they would likely reject any such clean CR, and would likely re-attach provisions to any legislation to keep funding the government, essentially calling the Senate’s bluff.

The rhetoric makes for a high-stakes staring match, with a government shutdown in the balance if neither side blinks before the end of Monday night. It’s also a tense race against the clock – something Democrats literally illustrated Thursday by rolling out a countdown timer until the government runs out of money.

“When the CR goes back to the House, it’ll be up to Speaker Boehner to decide if he wishes to cave into the hard right and shut down the government or stand aside and allow the government to open,” Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., said Thursday, referring to the top Republican in the House.

Ominously, though, when asked whether he had spoken with Boehner, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said he had not.

A bit earlier in the day, when asked whether his unruly Republican conference would support a clean CR, Boehner responded: “I do not see that happening.”

The speaker didn’t flatly rule out, though, bringing up a clean CR for a vote in the House; such a move would likely win Democratic support and allow Boehner to suffer some Republican defections.

“There's not going to be any speculation about what we're going to do or not do until the Senate passes their bill,” the speaker said.

But any move by the House to again modify the stopgap spending measure would only further up the ante in this latest bout of brinksmanship between the House and the Senate.

Like Boehner, Reid refused to say how the Senate would handle another version of this short-term measure.

“I’m not going to speculate on what they’re going to do,” he told reporters.

But the rhetorical battle is playing out during a race against time. Reid suggested the Senate would pass its clean spending measure on Saturday, giving Republicans just over 48 hours to make its counter-offer. But Reid said that even if the House were to send back the CR with a favorable provision – such as the tax on medical devices, so detested in both parties that Reid referred to it as the “stupid tax” – Democrats would still reject it. (A Reid aide later said the majority leader was calling the idea of stripping the medical tax "stupid.")

Republican House Speaker John Boehner tells reporters that President Barack Obama's stance on the debt limit is wrong and that "it just doesn't work that way."

At the same time, both Democratic and Republican leaders reiterated Thursday that they have no desire for a shutdown; if their differences remain unresolved come Monday evening’s deadline, they could vote to extend spending for a week or so. Lawmakers have turned to this pressure-release maneuver in past budget crunches.

The wrangling over funding the government still leaves unresolved the broader question of how Congress will manage an agreement to authorize increased government borrowing to fund its existing operations – the debt ceiling.

President Barack Obama has said he would refuse to negotiate over the debt ceiling and Boehner shot back on Thursday: “Well, I'm sorry, but it just doesn't work that way.”

Republicans said they would soon vote to approve an extension of the debt limit that included a veritable wish list of conservative initiatives attached to it. Their legislation is likely to seek a one-year delay of Obamacare’s individual mandate and approval for the proposed Keystone XL oil pipeline project, among other provisions – even though Obama has publicly said for weeks that any measure touching on the Affordable Care Act would invite his veto.

That means that even if lawmakers manage to find a solution to avert a government shutdown, they will immediately turn to another fight over the same issues, except involving the debt ceiling, which Treasury Secretary Jack Lew said the government would reach by Oct. 17.

NBC’s Frank Thorp contributed to this report.

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