By David Lawder
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Members of the Congress may not want a bruising government shutdown fight just weeks before November's elections but there are some early signs, worrying to senior Republicans, that they might get one anyway.
It would be instigated by fiscally conservative Republicans who may not go along quietly in mid- to late-September with a short-term spending extension necessary to keep the government running when the fiscal year ends at the end of that month.
These House conservatives don't want to give up hard-fought budget cuts already baked into House-passed spending bills - or worse - punt spending decisions into a post-election lame-duck session.
The September vote on a spending extension, through a continuing resolution, will be the last piece of must-pass legislation before the November 6 elections.
With the current round of partisan show-votes on extending tax cuts expected to be blocked by the opposing party, some lawmakers could see it as the final chance to make a point about spending and taxes.
"Since it's obvious that Republican leadership will do whatever it takes to pass a continuing resolution, conservatives are going to do what we can to limit the damage," said an aide to a conservative House Republican.
How far they will push things as the September 30 fiscal year-end approaches is yet to be seen.
"There will be definitely be some noise and probably a lot of smoke over a continuing resolution, but it's unclear that they'll want to light a fire right before the deadline," said Chris Krueger, a political analyst with Guggenheim Partners in Washington. "These guys will want to get home as soon as they can to make sure that they win their races."
Republican concern about a shutdown fight was reflected in a letter signed Wednesday by 20 House and Senate Republicans urging House Speaker John Boehner and top Senate Republican Mitch McConnell to seek immediate passage of a "fiscally responsible continuing resolution to extend federal operations well into next year".
"Taking the threat of a government shutdown off the table will allow a serious debate about tax and spending policy before the elections," the lawmakers wrote.
Fiscal 2013 levels for so-called discretionary spending, programs such as defense and education where Congress has more flexibility, were supposed to have been settled by the debt limit deal last year and the cuts it specified - to a $1.047 trillion discretionary spending level.
But House bills have cut $19 billion from that level, and fiscal conservatives are pressing for more. Campaign ads in congressional races feature claims about the need to tame runaway Washington spending.
SHUTDOWN BATTLE FATIGUE
Republican aides say House leaders have little stomach for last year's bloody shutdown battles that devastated Congress' approval ratings. Their plan is to pass a shorter-term measure sooner rather than later, pushing funding decisions past the election.
"There is a consensus that we want to avoid any big battle that could hurt (Republican candidate Mitt) Romney between now and the election," said a Republican House leadership aide.
This stop-gap effort would likely continue current spending levels or those agreed in last year's debt limit deal.
A fight over the length of the extension also is brewing. Some Republicans in both the House and Senate are insisting on a longer spending extension that goes into next year, when a newly elected Congress will take office.
They fear that under a short extension into the lame-duck session between the election and the start of a new Congress in January 2013, defeated lawmakers will be able to spend with impunity.
But these lawmakers will clash with other Republicans, such as House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers, who want a short, three-month reprieve to finish spending bills - and cuts - for which they have fought all year.
"CRs are not supposed to replace real funding bills. They're Band-Aids to give Congress extra time to complete the work that it's supposed to do during the regular fiscal year," said Jennifer Hing, a spokeswoman for Rogers.
A short-term CR would more likely win passage in the Democratic-controlled Senate, cutting chances of a messy shutdown fight down to "slim to none," she added.
The Republican leadership aide said at this point, there were no plans to go beyond the lame duck session.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has given up on the normal appropriations process, saying last week that the Senate will not pass any spending bills this year. He blamed the decision on the House Republicans' insistence on undercutting the spending level laid out in last year's debt limit deal.
House Speaker John Boehner has yet to publicly reveal his preferred path for a government funding extension.
"Given Senate Democrats' inexcusable failure to pass a budget or a single appropriations bill, at some point we'll have to deal with the consequences of their inaction - but no decisions have been made yet on how to do that," said Boehner spokesman Michael Steel.
A short-term extension also would heap the funding of government agencies and programs onto an already overcrowded agenda for Congress' lame duck session that includes much more pressing issues - year-end expiration of tax cuts, automatic spending cuts due in January and a likely debt limit increase.
"It would be adding more fuel to the chaos," said Senator Lindsey Graham, who signed the letter to Republican leaders.
"A vast majority of Republicans would prefer, on the Senate side, that the CR go into the next Congress so that we don't have all of this hitting right before Christmas."
(Additional reporting by Thomas Ferraro. Editing by Fred Barbash and Jackie frank)